Masters of Blues Harp
John Lee Williamson (Sonny Boy I)

Below is the bio note on John Lee Williamson from my harmonica  transcription/instruction book Masters of the Blues Harp, which has a transcription of his Good Morning Little Schoolgirl  from Throw A Boogie Woogie ( BMG 9599-2-R – w / Big Joe Williams).

-Glenn Weiser

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John Lee Williamson-the real Sonny Boy-was the bridge between the Memphis harmonica players of the 1920’s and 1930’s and the postwar Chicago players who brought blues harp to its zenith. And he was even more-Sonny Boy was the father of the postwar Chicago blues sound itself.

Born in Jackson, Tennessee in 1914, Williamson learned the harp by age 10 and was an accomplished player by his mid-teens. He also had a good singing voice, even though he had a speech defect that he had to compensate for in his vocal style.

During the 1930s he began soaking up the influence of the Memphis players-Will Shade, Hammie Nixon, Noah Lewis, and others-and started to work with Big Joe Williams, Sleepy John Estes, Yank Rachell and other area bluesmen. Using a technique based on tongue blocking, he expanded the harmonica’s capabilities as a lead instrument.

In 1937 he headed north to Chicago and got steady work playing in nightclubs with Big Joe, Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, Red Maceo, and others

He came to the attention of the Bluebird label’s Lester Melrose, and Sonny Boy’s recording career was launched. It was then that the postwar blues sound began to emerge. To be heard in the bars, piano and drums had been added to the guitar and vocals, and with Melrose favoring these combos, this was now known as the Bluebird beat. Many of Sonny Boy’s songs are still standards today. By the time WWII broke out, Sonny Boy was acknowledged as the best harp player in the city. He was also well liked for his generous, cheerful personality, and along with Big Bill Broonzy, helped a lot of musicians get started in Chicago.

After the wartime recording ban, he started cutting sides again. The young Muddy Waters, fresh out of Mississippi began working with him in the clubs as a backup guitarist at around this time also.

Tragically, in 1948 Sonny Boy was mugged while walking home late at night from a gig at the nearby Plantation Club and died of the injuries. He was only 34.


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