There were two Sonny Boy Williamson blues performers. The first Sonny Boy was John Lee Williamson. He rose to prominence before World War II as a harmonica player and actually performed with a number of the great artists. He was killed at Chicago on his way home from a blues bar in 1943. Alex Miller was also known as Sonny Boy Williamson. Miller went by several stage names before finally committing to Sonny Boy in the 40s. To avoid confusion people today generally refer to the two men as I and II.
Display case containing items belonging to Sonny Boy Williamson II located at the Delta Cultural Center:
Alex Miller was born on a plantation owned by Selwyn Jones in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi near Glendora. Although he looked much older, his estimated birthday was around 1912. Miller often gave conflicting dates to his birth so a mystery surrounds his background. To be honest there are mysteries woven throughout his life story.
The young man from Tallahatchie County began performing in the jukes at an early age on both the guitar and harmonica. As Alex “Rice” Miller, he began to earn a name in the business. Miller got his big break when he earned a spot on the King Biscuit Time show for KFFA Radio out of Helena, Arkansas playing with Robert Lockwood. Miller started to call himself Sonny Boy Williamson as part of the deal on the radio program. In return for playing the bluesmen were allowed to advertise their performances. The mystery of when he became Sonny Boy Williamson II starts during this period of his life. There is a story out there that the original Sonny Boy heard about this singer down in Helena calling himself the same name. He came down to meet this imposter, but wasn’t successful in stopping him from using the Sonny Boy name. Sonny Boy Williamson I returned to Chicago and Sonny Boy Williamson II remained on KFFA. No exact date has ever been determined when this happened, but the issue ended for good when Sonny Boy Williamson I was killed in 1943. Thus a new Sonny Boy Williamson was born who would have a longer and more widely accepted career than the first.
Picture of the King Biscuit Time Music Show at KFFA in Helena, Arkansas
From 1951 to 1954 Sonny Boy recorded with Trumpet Records. He then moved to a new recording company and had such hits as “Your Funeral and My Trial” and “Fattening Frogs for Snakes.” In 1956 Williamson released the song “Kept it to Yourself” on Checker Records which was a subsidiary of Chess Records. He would continue with this company until the mid 1960s. While he was recording at these labels, Sonny Boy continued to live and perform in the South. He also began to tour England and Europe.
During his career, Sonny Boy Williamson performed with legends like Robert Lockwood, Eric Clapton and the Animals. On May 25, 1965 Sonny Boy Williamson died in Helena, Arkansas. He is buried at Whitfield Baptist Church Cemetery in Tutwiler, Mississippi. In 1980 he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Sonny Boy Williamson has a marker on the Blues Trail in Helena, Arkansas near where he played on the King Biscuit Time radio show. He also has another Blues Trail marker at Glendora, Mississippi.
Marker located at Helena, Arkansas
Sonny Boy Williamson – Encyclopedia of Arkansas
Sonny Boy Williamson – Mississippi Blues Trail
Sonny Boy Williamson Biography – Britannica