Friday, September 7, 2007
Aleck "Rice" Miller (December 5, 1899 – May 25, 1965), a.k.a. Sonny Boy Williamson II, Willie Williamson, Willie Miller, "Little Boy Blue", "The Goat" and "Footsie," was an American blues harmonica player, singer and songwriter.
Rice Miller was born on the Sara Jones Plantation near Glendora, Mississippi in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. The date and year of his birth are a matter of some uncertainty. Miller claimed to have been born on December 5, 1899, but one researcher, David Evans, claims to have found census record evidence that he was born around 1912. Miller's gravestone has his birthdate as March 11, 1908.
Miller lived and worked with his sharecropper stepfather, Jim Miller, and mother, Millie Ford, until the early 1930s. Beginning in the 1930s, he traveled around Mississippi and Arkansas and encountered Blind Lemon Jefferson, Big Joe Williams, Elmore James and Robert Lockwood Jr., also known as Robert Junior Lockwood, who would play guitar on his later Checker Records sides. He was also associated with Robert Johnson during this period.
Williamson developed his style and raffish stage persona during these years. Willie Dixon recalled seeing Lockwood and Sonny Boy, with an amplified harmonica, in Greenville, Mississippi in the 1930s. He captivated audiences with tricks such as holding his harmonica between his top lip and nose and playing with no hands.
Williamson lived in Twist, Arkansas for a time with Howlin' Wolf's sister Mary Burnett and taught Wolf to play harmonica. (Later, for Chess, Williamson did a parody of Howlin' Wolf entitled "Like Wolf.") In 1941 Miller was hired to play the King Biscuit Time show on radio station KFFA in Helena, Arkansas with Lockwood.
It was at this point that the radio program's sponsor, Max Moore, began billing Miller as Sonny Boy Williamson, apparently in an attempt to capitalize on the fame of the well known Chicago-based harmonica player and singer John Lee Williamson (see Sonny Boy Williamson I). Although John Lee Williamson was a major blues star who had already released dozens of successful and widely influential records under the name "Sonny Boy Williamson" from 1937 onward, Aleck Miller would later claim to have been the first to use the name, and some blues scholars believe that Miller's assertion he was born in 1899 was a ruse to convince audiences he was old enough to have used the name before John Lee Williamson, who was born in 1914. Whatever the methodology, Miller became known as "Sonny Boy Williamson," (universally distinguished by blues fans and musicians as "Sonny Boy Williamson number two" or "Sonny Boy Williamson the second") and Lockwood and the rest of his band were the King Biscuit Boys. His growing renown in the mid-south took him places such as West Memphis, Arkansas, where he performed on a KWEM radio show selling the elixir Hadacol.
Williamson's first recording session took place in 1951 for Lillian McMurray of Jackson, Mississippi's Trumpet Records (three years after the death of John Lee Williamson, which for the first time allowed some legitimacy to Miller's carefully worded claim to being "the one and only Sonny Boy Williamson".) McMurray later erected Williamson's headstone, near Tutwiler, Mississippi, in 1977.
When Trumpet went bankrupt in 1955, Sonny Boy's recording contract was yielded to its creditors, who sold it to Chess Records in Chicago, Illinois. Williamson had begun developing a following in Chicago beginning in 1953, when he appeared there as a member of Elmore James's band. It was during his Chess years that he enjoyed his greatest success and acclaim, recording about 70 songs for Chess subsidiary Checker Records from 1955 to 1964. In the 1960s he toured Europe during the height of the British blues craze, recording with The Yardbirds and The Animals. During this tour he allegedly stabbed a man during a street fight and left the country abruptly.(Robert Palmer's Deep Blues)
In the 1940s Williamson married Mattie Gordon, who remained his wife until his death on May 25, 1965 (his headstone erroneously gives his date of death as June 23, 1965) in Helena, Arkansas. Williamson was characterized by a hip-flask of whiskey, a pistol, a knife, a foul mouth, and a short temper. He had always worn fancier suits than he could afford, and his tour of Europe allowed him further embellishment, adding a finely tailored two-tone suit and a bowler hat to his unique, grey-goateed image.
Rice Miller was, however, notable as a highly original blues songwriter, and his laconic harmonica style and sly vocals mark him as a true artist. Much of his best work exhibits a solidly swinging beat and a rich dialogue between blues harp, guitar, piano, and precussion. His use of space, his timing, and his tone place him among the greatest of the blues-harp players.
Some of his hits include "Fattenin' Frogs for Snakes", "Don't Start Me To Talkin'", "Keep It To Yourself", "Your Funeral and My Trial", "Bye Bye Bird", "Nine Below Zero", "Help Me", and the infamous "Little Village", with its R-rated dialogue with Leonard Chess. His song "Eyesight to the Blind" was performed by The Who as a key song in their rock opera Tommy (the only song in that opus not written by a band member) and it was later covered on the Aerosmith album Honkin' on Bobo.
In interviews in The Last Waltz, roots-rockers The Band recount jamming with Miller prior to their initial fame as Bob Dylan's electric backing band, and making never-realized plans to become his backing band.
Posted by bushganizer258 at 8:18 AM