Rock Flashback: Meet The (Sonny Boy) Williamsons

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Two masters of the blues harmonica share the same name. (Getty Images/Uwe Meinhold/AFP)

Two masters of the blues harmonica share the same name. (Getty Images/Uwe Meinhold/AFP)

Readers of liner notes have probably come across the name [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Sonny Boy Williamson[/lastfm], one of the early blues masters whose works were frequently covered — or plundered — by rock bands. It’s necessary to keep your Sonny Boys straight, however, for there were two of them.

[lastfm link_type="artist_info"]John Lee Williamson[/lastfm]was born in 1914. He’s a country blues player credited with making the harmonica an important blues instrument. His most famous song is “Good Morning School Girl,” recorded by [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]the Yardbirds[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Rod Stewart[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Johnny Winter[/lastfm], the [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Grateful Dead[/lastfm], and others. He also recorded a popular version of [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Robert Johnson[/lastfm]‘s “Stop Breaking Down,” later covered by the [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Rolling Stones[/lastfm]. In 1948, Williamson was killed by a robber in Chicago.

Williamson’s popularity led another harmonica player, [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Rice Miller[/lastfm], to adopt Sonny Boy Williamson as his stage name. He did not release records under this name during the original Sonny Boy’s lifetime, although the two men are reported to have met in 1942. According to bluesman [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Robert Lockwood[/lastfm], “Rice Miller could play Sonny Boy’s stuff better than he could play it.” The man known as Sonny Boy Williamson II wrote several songs recorded by later rock bands, including “Eyesight to the Blind” ([lastfm link_type="artist_info"]the Who[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]B. B. King[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Aerosmith[/lastfm]) and “Don’t Start Me to Talkin'” (the[lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Doobie Brothers[/lastfm]). The [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Allman Brothers Band[/lastfm]‘s “One Way Out” was co-written by him, too. Miller died in 1965, aged about 53, although his birthdate is uncertain.

Here’s an early-’60s TV performance of “Your Funeral and My Trial” by Sonny Boy Williamson. But is it John Lee Williamson or Rice Miller? If you’ve been paying attention, you know.

Experience more Rock Flashbacks.

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