There’s no shortage of tragedy in the stories of the musicians who created the blues, but John Lee Williamson — who performed as Sonny Boy Williamson — suffered twice.
The Tennessee-born singer and harmonica player was at the height of his popularity in 1948 when, while walking home from a gig at the Plantation Club in Chicago, he was fatally injured in a strong-arm robbery. He then suffered the posthumous indignity of having his stage name appropriated by another blues performer, Aleck “Rice” Miller, who turned out to be a songwriter and harp player of equal if not greater genius, developing a classic body of work that completely overshadows that of his predecessor. Each man is such a creative force in his own right that blues buffs and scholars have split the different by calling John Lee “Sonny Boy Williamson I” and Rice Miller “Sonny Boy Williamson II.”
What shouldn’t be lost is the fact that John Lee WIlliamson was the first innovator to make the harmonica an essential instrument in the rough, loud Chicago blues style of the 1940s and 1950s. After a long apprenticeship as a traveling musician in the late 1920s and 1930s, Williamson started recording in the late 1930s and quickly made a place for himself alongside Muddy Waters and Big Joe Williams. He was the first to record the blues standard “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” then added “Stop Breaking Down,” Whiskey Headed Blues” and “Early in the Morning” (among others) to the capacious blues catalogue.
This documentary about Williamson’s life is available on YouTube as part one and part two, and will bring you up to speed. As much as I love the second Sonny Boy’s work, the original doesn’t deserve to be buried twice.