'Fessor Mojo On Rice Miller (Sonny Boy II)

Rice Miller biographer William Donoughue prepared the following notes on Sonny Boy II for my harmonica transcription book Masters of Blues Harp. I wasn't able to include everything he gave me in the book, so here are his notes in their entirety.

-Glenn Weiser

Biographical Notes on Alex "Rice" Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson II)
by William Donoughue (http://www.sonnyboy.com/)

Sometime in the late 1920s it appears that Alex Miller (Sonny Boy II) and John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson (Sonny Boy I) met. It is safe to say they were at least well aware of each other, Rice in the northern Mississippi delta and John Lee Williamson in Tennessee. Because he was an escaped convict, Alex Miller chose to use many aliases, Rice Miller, Willie Miller, W. M., Harmonica Blowin’ Slim, Little Boy Blue, Sonny Boy Miller and Sonny Boy Williamson. He may have used Sonny Boy Williamson as early as 1934 after John Lee Williamson moved to Chicago.

By the end of the end of the thirties he was simply known most commonly as "Sonny Boy." It was in 1939 that Robert Lockwood Jr. (Robert Johnson’s stepson) and Sonny Boy first began to play Chicago-style electric blues. Robert Jr. was the first delta bluesman to follow Charlie Christian’s lead in fitting his guitar with a pickup (courtesy of Montgomery Ward’s mail order catalog) and amplifier and Sonny Boy would hook up a mike to a car radio, jukebox or whatever he could find to attract a big crowd on the streets or in a juke. This was five years before Muddy Waters bought his first electric guitar raising the question, "Who invented Chicago Blues?" (Some say that Muddy left for Chicago because Sonny Boy and Robert Jr. were too much competition in the delta.)

Max Moore, owner of Interstate Grocer Company’s King Biscuit Flour business, certainly was at least partially responsible for Sonny Boy’s use of the "Williamson" name on King Biscuit Time on KFFA in Helena Arkansas. Later confronted by John Lee Williamson on a Southern tour, they agreed that Alex would be "Sonny Boy Williams." Of course, the names are pronounced identically in the delta. Well aware of John Lee Williamson’s work, but totally unaware of King Biscuit Time, Lillian McMurry took him at his word when he signed a Trumpet recording contract as Willie "Sonny Boy Williamson."

Both recorded as "Sonny Boy Williamson." John Lee Williamson (Sonny Boy I), recorded for Bluebird from 1937-1947 and died of a mugging (not an ice pick as often claimed) in 1948, played more like a "Mississippi Saxophone" while Alex "Rice" Miller (Sonny Boy II), who recorded from 1951-1965, was more of a "St. Louis trumpet": in the style of Miles Davis or Clark Terry. Sonny Boy II savored every note and color and timing was the essence of his playing. Sonny Boy I played every note he knew.

Miller was reluctant to speak of his early life, but blues researcher Bill Donoghue has discovered that he was born in Glendora in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, probably on December 5th, 1912, and raised near Money in Leflore County from at least 1920 on, according to federal census records. The youngest of 21 children, he was nicknamed "Rice" when he was a small child for his love of milk and rice and was probably playing the harmonica by age five. He even played gospel music and preached as a young man.

Unlike many bluesmen of the time, he had a fairly stable family life but overstayed his welcome by being self-centered and living at home until he was around eighteen, when he began to play for the hat on street corners, church socials, fishfrys or anywhere else he could find or attract a crowd. Along with his sometime companions Robert Johnson and Robert Lockwood Jr., he made most of his money and he made a lot of money playing for tips. They were wise enough, however, to play on separate corners to double the take. A heavy drinker, overenthusiastic gambler and womanizer he spent his money freely, knowing he could always make more.

Sometime in the 1930s, he married Howlin' Wolf half-sister Mae and taught Wolf the rudiments of the harmonica. Wolf can be seen in the 1966 Newport "Juke joint" home movies imitating Sonny Boy by playing the harmonica hands-free and sticking out of his mouth. Sonny Boy, on the other hand, would sing in that raspy voice and crawl across the floor in an imitation of Wolf. In fact, Sonny Boy recorded a song sung in a raspy voice "Like Wolf."

In 1941, after learning how successful he could be if he had a radio show (as he had done previously as "Little Boy Blue" on WEBQ in Harrisburg Illinois in the late 1930s), he talked Sam Anderson into giving him a radio show. Anderson was just starting radio station KFFA in late 1941 and faced with advertising cancellations after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor two weeks after the station opened, King Biscuit Flour just fit the bill. Anderson knew that Sonny Boy would be perfect to advertise King Biscuit Flour to the black audience King Biscuit wanted to reach. So Sonny Boy had the opportunity to become the first black media star of the South. While he did not reach very far, 10% of the nation’s black population was within that 50-mile radius. Hearing him sing about his woman literally gave "Eyesight To The Blind" as the first seeds of racial pride in the delta. He sold a lot of flour.

Soon after Sonny Boy had started the show as a solo act, Robert Lockwood Jr. returned from making a recording in Chicago and Sonny Boy enlisted his old friend to join him on the show. Of course, Sonny Boy was the live entertainment and not the announcer or a disc jockey, a role designated solely for a white man. Sam Anderson started as host and then Herb Langston hosted for a while and Hugh Smith was host from 1944-1953 when Sunshine Sonny Payne, today’s host, took over.

In order to promote the show, Max Moore decided to identify Sonny Boy as "Sonny Boy Williamson." Sonny Boy, realizing that the show could make him a big star and that the show could barely be heard 50 miles away on good day, went along with it. It was a big mistake that would haunt him all his life.

Still, if he did a good job, Max Moore could bail him out of a whole lot of scrapes with the lay. Miller, eager to get ahead, went along with the ploy. What Sonny Boy II had not counted on was the heavy migration of delta blacks to Chicago, Sonny Boy I’s backyard. Sonny Boy I heard about the "new" Sonny Boy in Helena and reportedly traveled to Helena in a vain attempt to stop it. At one time both had radio shows on KFFA but Sonny Boy II blew Sonny Boy I away and Sonny Boy I returned to Chicago and never mentioned the confrontation to a soul. It’s not even mentioned in his biography.

King Biscuit Time was a big hit and Sonny Boy "Williams," at Lockwood’s insistence, added guitarist and Robert Jr. disciple Joe Willie Wilkins, drummer Peck Curtis and "pea picker" pianist Dudlow Taylor and sometimes the brilliant Willie Love. Later, Joe Willie (soon to be) "Pinetop" Perkins replaced them. Sometimes others like Houston Stackhouse would fill in when part of the band was on the road.

With the radio show to promote himself Sonny Boy became a delta star. He didn’t need to push the issue of the name and become a recording star. He was a big fish in a small pond and he jumped about at will.

In 1944, his picture appeared on Sonny Boy Corn Meal and he became a household institution. After 1944, he developed an itch to travel and he would not be on the show regularly but would return when he was in town.

Since KFFA could not be heard outside the 50 mile broadcast radius, Sonny Boy later quietly did radio shows in Little Rock Arkansas and Belzoni Mississippi outside KFFA’s range. It was not until KFFA linked up with WROX in Clarksdale Mississippi in the late 1940s that King Biscuit Time would reach far enough for a young Riley King to hear it in Indianola. Later Sonny Boy would help Riley (soon to be B. B.) King get his first paid gig. Riley would feel that he knew Sonny Boy like a family member although Sonny Boy had never met him before that day in 1949.

On Saturdays, the KFFA King Biscuit Entertainers would visit grocery stores performing on King Biscuit’s flatbed truck throughout the Northern Mississippi delta in towns like Marianna, Brinkley, Monroe in Arkansas and Sardis and Clarksdale in Mississippi.

Lockwood would leave King Biscuit in early 1943 for his own jazz-based Mother’s Best Flour Show on KFFA and return to Chicago in 1945. While heavily rooted in Robert Johnson’s techniques (unmatched even today) he built his own unique jazz-based vision and sound all his own. He has relied on his own inspiration all his life and, while he has influenced many, is not directly influenced by anyone other than Robert Johnson, who never saw an electric guitar before he died.

Lockwood’s exposure on King Biscuit drew students B. B. King, who had the unique challenge of not being able to play chords or sing and play at the same time. Lockwood taught him to listen to the bass, get a rhythm guitarist and a horn section to fill in the gaps leaving him the freedom to solo and sing in his unique gospel-based style.

In 1951 Sonny Boy began to record for the Trumpet label in Jackson Mississippi, and scoring regionally with "Eyesight To The Blind" and helping his guitarist Elmore James hit with his first (of many versions) interpretation of Robert Johnson’s "Dust My Broom." That hit got Elmore James a contract with the Bihari brothers (RPM, Modern, Meteor, Flair Records) and a round of gigs with Sonny Boy at Sylvio’s and the 708 Club in Chicago.

The duo was billed as Elmore "The Broomduster" James and "Sonny Boy" Williams (although the records said "Williamson"). When Sonny Boy hit big with the two-sided hit "Mighty Long Time" and "Nine Below Zero" he continued the "Sonny Boy" Williams billing in Chicago to protect him from those who resented his use of the Williamson name.

The record business was played hardball in those rough and tumble days and Chess and Modern’s distributor in Jackson Mississippi quietly informed the record stores that, if they wanted their product, the couldn’t buy Trumpet’s. Faced with no sales and heavy returns, Trumpet was forced out of business. Sonny Boy’s contract was signed over to the pressing plant owner to settle the bill and Lillian and Willard McMurry worked four and one half years to pay off the company’s debts.

That contract soon found its way to Chess Records whose Leonard Chess had already had a run-in with Lillian McMurry who had been generous enough to arrange a Big Boy Crudup recording session. Chess then refused to pay Crudup his travel expenses and charged him for a bottle of booze Lillian had given him. "Miss Lillian" talked the well-named Big Boy into backing off and keeping out of jail. Chess was just checking out the competition.

Chess quickly brought Sonny Boy to the Windy City to record with Muddy Waters' band on the Checker label. The first session produced "Don’t Start Me To Talkin’" and "All My Love In Vain" and "Good Evening Everybody" (the King Biscuit Time theme previously recorded by Big Joe Williams and Sonny Boy I as "King Biscuit Stomp"). Unlike Little Walter, Miller did not play through a microphone into an amp, instead preferring an acoustic tone. He used the tremolo masterfully, and could get a wide range of sounds out of the harp.
  He continued to record for Chess under the name "Sonny Boy Williamson" until
about 1961 these sides are the core of his middle period work. Many people who had known the real Williamson, though, were critical of his use of the name. Chess even placed an ad for "Help Me" identifying him as "Sonny Boy Williams" even though the record read differently. But the records kept selling, and Miller stuck by his story in spite of the questions that wouldn't go away. He died insisting even to close friends he was "the original Sonny Boy Williamson, the only one."
  In 1963-64 he toured Europe, and recorded with the Animals, Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds, and in a final session Brian Auger and the Trinity with guitarist Jimmy Page. He fell in love with the English and even adopted bowlers (he had worn them since the late 1930s), umbrellas, and Saville Row suits.

He was often interviewed by European blues enthusiasts during his stay. American journalists had totally ignored interviewing him. It was ironic that he would talk fairly openly (although he lied about his name and age) with Blue Unlimited writers in England, where they did not understand the context in which he lived his life in the Delta, and American writers did not interview him because of that same racial context. Every American liner note uses second hand information and his liner notes are riddled with misinformation and inconsistencies.

He recorded some of his finest work, free of the Chess formula shuffles, for Storyville. In Europe he would record in several settings, with Memphis Slim on piano, with Matt "Guitar" Murphy, with Muddy Waters, with his fellow American Folk Blues Festival cohorts (at different times Willie Dixon, Hubert Sumlin, Billie Stepney, Clifton James, Sunnyland Slim, Otis Spann and others) and, most importantly, solo.

His most intimate work is his solo and duo recordings that were, admittedly aimed at the new "folk" audience. Fortunately they were recorded so well that audiophile versions have appeared in recent years.

He did do one brilliant final Chess session in August 1964 with Buddy Guy’s band backing him up. "Mattie Is My Wife" while not released in the U. S.could have gotten him and Buddy Guy on the rock club circuit.

He made three trips to Europe during a 15-month period spending most of the time in Europe. In the summer of 1964, he did a BBC TV show with the very hip "Trad" musician Chris Barber. He even recorded a surprise visit with Roland Kirk, a jazz musician who played three horns simultaneously

Ultimately his visa expired and he returned to Helena in 1965. Miller had felt his time growing short, and wanted to spend his last days in the Delta. For a few months he traveled the region visiting his old haunts, fishing on the levees of the Mississippi and playing on KFFA.

In his last weeks, a group of Canadian musicians dropped by looking for him: a group calling itself Levon and the Hawks (later, The Band) led by Turkey Scratch Arkansas’s Levon Helm. They jammed with him and planned to tour together.

Had Sonny Boy lived another four months, it is likely that he would have played the Newport Folk (or Jazz) Festival and been in The Hawks when they joined another harp player, Bob Dylan, in September of 1965. You have to wonder whether Europeans in love with Sonny Boy would have booed the new electric Dylan when he toured the coming year.

It was not to be. Alex "Sonny Boy" Williamson passed away in Helena Arkansas on May 25, 1965. Ironically, one of the few songs that the two Sonny Boys recorded in common was Sonny Boy I’s "Decoration Day Blues" and they both died within a week of Decoration Day, the Pre-World War II name for Memorial Day.

Transcriptions: The Goat (Sonny Boy Williamson: More Real Folk Blues-Chess
Born Blind (One Way Out-Chess 9116).
Too Young to Die (Sonny Boy Williamson: The Real Folk Blues-Chess 9272)
Bye Bye Bird (Sonny Boy Williamson: More Real Folk Blues).

Notes: Rice Miller is thought to have played entirely in tongue blocking
Bye Bye Bird starts on a low C diatonic (Hohner #364 or 365), switches to a
C-10 hole diatonic, and then switches back to the low C.

Email: banjoandguitar100@yahoo.com

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