In the years before his death on May 25, 1965, harp virtuoso Sonny Boy Williamson was one of the chief beneficiaries of the British blues craze. He toured the U.K. and Europe on the roster of the American Folk Blues Festival tours, where performers who had been largely forgotten in the U.S. found themelves greeted by cheering crowds, attentive audiences and a level of respect never accorded to black musicians back home.
Williamson stayed in the U.K. for a while, serving as a living touchstone of authenticity for young Brits gutsy enough to approach him. There are early recordings of Williamson performing with the Animals and the Yardbirds during their Eric Clapton-led phase, and I’ve heard that he played at least a couple of gigs with the Moody Blues, who began in 1964 as an R&B obsessed Merseybeat group. Their first album, The Magnificent Moodies, closed with Williamson’s “Bye Bye Bird,” which Williamson performs above and which the Moodies perform below:
This is the era when the Moodies were still led by guitarist Denny Laine. Bassist Clint Warwick had already been replaced with Rod Clarke, and in due course Laine and Clarke would be succeeded by guitarist Justin Hayward and bassist John Lodge. A few years later, Sonny Boy would be replaced by Sgt. Pepper as the band’s key influence, and the rest is prog-rock history.
I’ve returned to this era few times because, aside from having grown up with the rock music the English developed from their inspirations, I’m fascinated by the idea of teenaged Brits in the Sixties adopting the decades-old music of black Americans for their own. Even the Who, probably the least bluesy sounding band in the classic rock canon (their “Maximum R&B” slogan to the contrary), gave Williamson’s “Eyesight to the Blind” . . .
. . . a place as the only non-band composition on the rock opera Tommy.