Sonny Boy Williamson II was one of the most influential blues harmonica players, singers, and songwriters of the mid-twentieth century. His history is mysterious, but nothing is more uncertain than Sonny Boy Williamson II’s real name. The enigmatic harmonica player has been called Aleck Miller, Alex Miller, Aleck Ford, Alex Ford, and Rice (probably a nickname) Miller, to name a few. He was born to Millie Ford. His father’s identity is unclear. He adopted the name Sonny Boy Williamson from another blues harmonica player, John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, from Chicago. Scholars and fans refer to John Lee Williamson as Sonny Boy Williamson I and Aleck Miller as Sonny Boy Williamson II to reduce confusion, especially since Miller often took credit for Williamson’s recordings. To further complicate matters, before finally settling on the name Sonny Boy Williamson, Aleck Miller performed as Little Boy Blue, Sonny Boy Miller, Harmonica Blowin’ Slim, Willie Miller, and Willie Williamson. We do know that he was born somewhere between Glendora and Tutwiler, though his birthdate is also confusing. Again, sources vary widely, ranging from 1897 to 1912; most sources cite either 1897 or 1899.
At around age five, Aleck Miller began learning to play harmonica. Within a few years he was playing street corners and hopping trains around the South, especially Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, and Tennessee. He often performed with blues greats such as Robert Jr. Lockwood, Homesick James, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, and Robert Johnson. Though Little Walter is often given credit for amplifying the harmonica, several sources claim that Sonny Boy Williamson II was performing with a microphone and amplifier in the late 1930s. Sonny Boy II also influenced a number of performers through his powerful showmanship and performance tricks, such as playing the harmonica without using his hands.
Williamson landed a steady performing job in 1941 on the King Biscuit Time radio show over KFFA in Helena, Arkansas, where he worked with Pinetop Perkins, James “Peck” Curtis, Joe Willie Wilkins, Houston Stackhouse, and others. The radio broadcasts established him as the image of the King Biscuit Flour Company. Though he claimed to have recorded in the 1930s, the earliest verifiable recordings occurred in 1951, when Lillian McMurry tracked him down for her Trumpet Records label in Jackson. Many of his most famous recordings were done for Trumpet, including “Eyesight to the Blind,” “Mighty Long Time,” “Nine Below Zero,” and “She Brought Life Back to the Dead.” In 1955 he headed to Chicago, where he recorded more hits for Checker/Chess, including “Fattenin’ Frogs for Snakes” and “Don’t Start Me Talkin.”
In 1963 Williamson toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival, wowing audiences with his music and showmanship. While in Europe, he recorded with rock bands the Animals and the Yardbirds. Two years later, he returned to the United States and again performed on King Biscuit Time before his death on 25 May 1965 in Helena, Arkansas. He was elected to the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980.
- Sheldon Harris, Blues Who’s Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers (1979)
- Mississippi Blues Trail website, msbluestrail.org
- Marc Ryan, Trumpet Records: Diamonds on Farish Street (2004)
- Jim Trageser, in Encyclopedia of the Blues, ed. Edward Komara (2006)