Sonny Boy Williamson II

Perhaps capitalizing on the earlier fame of John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, there emerged Alec “Rice” Miller who also used the moniker Sonny Boy Williamson. To differentiate people will often refer to Miller as Sonny Boy Williamson II.  Sonny Boy II was no cheap imitator, he was also a brilliant and trendsetting harmonica player with a style and phrasing all his own. He also possessed a poetic quality of songwriting filled with rich imagery and catchy, folksy sayings and an emotion-laden voice with which to deliver those songs. Early in his career he made daily broadcasts with KFFA for King Biscuit Flour which pioneered blues music onto the radio. His early recordings with Mississippi’s Trumpet Records were followed by a prolific hit making run with Chicago’s famed Chess Records. In the later years Sonny Boy Williamson II found a great audience in Europe and recorded as a free-agent for numerous Euro labels and often comingled with British rock bands including the Yardbirds featuring a young Eric Clapton. These great photos come to us courtesy of Sonny Burnette, a true enthusiast on the subject of Sonny Boy Williamson II.
The earliest known image of Alex or Aleck ”Rice” Miller ( Ford, prior to his Sonny Boy Williamson II name) as ”Little Boy Blue” his stage name at the time in probably 1938 or 1939. The radio station WEBQ was a 50,000 watt clear channel station in Harrisburg IL (Southern IL NE of Cairo) the home of The Baptist Hour. He also had a home in Harrisburg in 1938. Note him wearing his Derby or Bowler hat around 25 years before he toured the UK and Europe.

Sonny Boy circa 1956. This publicity photograph was taken at the Hooks Brothers photography studio on Beale street, Memphis the very same studio that took the famous Robert Johnson with guitar sitting crossed legged photograph. Sonny Boy wears a WDIA radio station pin but it has never been proven if he had actually worked for them.

 

Sonny Boy Williamson studio portrait, 1955.  Lillian McMurry arranged for Sonny Boy to be represented by Universal Artists toward the end of his Trumpet contract. It appears that he did at least one tour of the TOBA circuit and played the Apollo Theater in Harlem. The first tour was probably in the mid-1950s and that latter in the 1963/64 when he was home from London.

 

Sonny Boy Williamson II and Robert Lockwood Jr. 1941 By Max Moore.

 

Sonny Boy Williamson on tour in the South for King Biscuit Time. Early 1950’s.

King Biscuit Time on tour early 1950’s.

Sonny Boy and Robert Jr Lockwood pose for a King Biscuit Time publicity shot. Circa 1941. Max Moore collection.

Sonny Boy in Stockholm 1963. By Bengt H. Malmqvist.

Sonny Boy in Stockholm 1963. By Bengt H. Malmqvist.

Sonny Boy Williamson II, January 8, 1965 on British TV music show Ready, Steady, Go accompanied by Gary Farr and the T – Bones. Photograph by Val Wilmer.

At Marquee Club in London. 1963. By Tony Evans.

Photographed at the same time he was filmed at the Montmartre jazz club, Copenhagen, Denmark 1964. Jan Persson

At the Esquire Club, Sheffield, England UK 1964/65. Photographer unknown.

Backstage at the Fairfield Hall, Croydon. Oct 19, 1964. By Charlie Gillett.

Recorded August 5, 1951 in Jackson, MS Sonny Boy his Harmonica and House Rockers (in this case the House Rockers being Willie Love or David Cambell on piano, the guitars of Elmore James and Joe Willie Wilkins, bass player Leonard Ware and an unknown drummer) produced many killer sides on their return to the studio for Trumpet Records in this one session including ”Cool, Cool Blues” which  is another early example of his lyrical mastery and genius. For a man who did not want to give away details of his life, he tells all in his lyrics and Cool,Cool Blues is no exception of Sonny Boy’s fondness for getting out of his home or town and looking for some other cool, cool place to go!

Recorded on the 11th Jan, 1963 in Chicago, “Help Me” would become one of the most covered and loved blues anthems and would spawn a blues harmonica phrase still widely used and loved by harmonica players today. It would also be a surprise hit for Sonny Boy on the UK Pye label the following year in Europe and would endear an already popular Sonny Boy to the UK ”Mod” scene. Sonny Boy would also claim the famous riff was his originally and not Booker T & The MG’s!

Sonny Boy Williamson and club compère Bob Wooler at the Cavern Club, Liverpool, UK, January 22, 1964. Photographer: Peter Kaye

Sonny Boy Williamson with his UK ”companion” at Roger Eagle’s flat in Chorlton, Manchester, 16th Feb, 1964. .Photograph by Brian Smith.

Sonny Boy Williamson (with his UK ”companion”) and various fans inside at Roger Eagle’s flat in Chorlton, Manchester, 16th Feb, 1964. His driver far right is Roger Fairhurst (glasses).Photograph by Brian Smith.

Sonny Boy Williamson (with his blonde UK ”companion”) and various fans outside Roger Eagle’s (front left) flat in Chorlton, Manchester, 16th Feb, 1964. His driver far right is Roger Fairhurst (glasses). Photograph by Brian Smith.

Sonny Boy looking relaxed and happy with his ”girlfriend” at Roger Eagle’s flat, Manchester, Oct. 1963. By Brian Smith.

Sonny Boy entertaining everyone at Roger Eagle’s flat in Manchester, Oct 1963. Note Roger Eagle doing the dishes in the background whilst Sonny Boy play’s the blues on his harp. By Brian Smith.

Publicity shot from the TV show ”I Hear The Blues” broadcast on 18th December 1963 with Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon. Granada TV studio Manchester UK.

Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters photographed together at Peppers Lounge, Chicago. 1962. By George Adins.

Sonny Boy Williamson with Muddy Waters on stage at Peppers Lounge, Chicago 1962. By George Adins.

Sonny Boy Williamson on stage at Peppers Lounge, Chicago 1962. By George Adins.

Photograph of Sonny Boy taken for his Storyville recordings in November, 1963. By  Jan Persson.

Another iconic image of Sonny Boy taken for Storyville record label, Copenhagen. 1963. By Jan Persson.

George Adins The blues writer, author and photographer made a visit to East St. Louis in 1959 after he had wrote to Sonny Boy Willaimson and was invited by Sonny Boy to visit him. Much to Adins surprise when he got there Sonny Boy invited him to stay at his home. Adins also got the chance to see Sonny Boy live in a local Juke and also to take a series of photographs of him.

Sonny Boy Williamson and Frank Frost. East St. Louis. 1959. By George Adins.
Sonny Boy with Sam Carr and Frank Frost. East St. Louis 1959. By George Adins.
Sonny Boy Williamson, Frank Frost and Sam Carr. East St. Louis. 1959. By George Adins.
Sonny Boy Williamson,  Sam Carr and Frank Frost. East St. Louis. 1959. By George Adins.
Sonny Boy in Europe 1963. By George Adins.
Storyville LP ST 21005, Portraits In Blues. Cover photo By Jean-Pierre Leloir.

Paris, France 1963 by Jean-Pierre Leloir.
Sonny Boy and Memphis Slim, Paris, France 1963. By Jean-Pierre Leloir.
Sonny Boy Williamson in Paris. By Jean Pierre Leloir.
Sonny Boy striking a pose and eating his ”chip shop” takeaway meal backstage UK, 1964. By Chris Morphet.
Sonny Boy at the Jazz House, Wiesbaden, Germany. Oct 22, 1963. By Stefanie Wiesand.
Sonny Boy with Robert Jr Lockwood and unknown band members. Cleveland, Ohio. Maybe 1959/62. Possibly by George Adins.
On stage with the Chris Barber Band at the Fairfield Hall, Croydon. UK. 1963. By David Redfern.
Photograph by Jean-Pierre Leloir on the cover of Soul Bag issue No.134.
Sonny Boy and Mattie his new wife at their home in West Memphis just after their wedding in 1949.
Sonny Boy at Heathrow Airport, London UK after flying in from Paris. 4th December 1963. Possibly by Val Wilmer.
In Paris, France. 1963. By Jean-Pierre Leloir.

A publicity photo of Sonny Boy looking a little thinner in the face from around the 1950’s.

Trumpet Records publicity photo. early 1950’s.

In 1947 Max Moore of the Interstate Grocery Company introduced his latest product ”Sonny Boy Corn Meal” as seen in this publicity photo from that year. left to right: Joe Willie Wilkins, Joe “Pine Top” Perkins, Sonny Boy Williamson, Hugh Smith (announcer), James “Peck” Curtis and Houston Stackhouse. By Ivey Gladin.

King Biscuit Time/KFFA publicity photograph. L-R; Joe Willie Wilkins, Robert Dudlow “Mr. Five by Five” Taylor, Sonny Boy Williamson, Herb Langston (announcer), James ‘Peck’ Curtis, Willie Love. 1941/42. By Ivey Gladin.
Robert Jr Lockwood and Sonny Boy standing in front of a 1941 Plymouth Coupe. It is unknown if this was Sonny Boy’s own car. Sonny Boy was paid $12.50 a week for doing the King Biscuit Time/KFFA radio show but through Max Moore setting up gigs at Juke Joints and special events as they toured the South doing their King Biscuit Time roadshow Sonny Boy could earn hundreds of dollars a week from these extra night time gigs, often playing all night and roadshow gigs during the day…so this might even have been his own car at some point.
James Cotton, Sonny Boy Williamson, Jimmy Rogers, Muddy Waters and Otis Spann in Muddy’s basement at 4339 South Lake Park Avenue, Chicago, IL in 1959. By Georges Adins.
Willie Dixon, Memphis Slim and Sonny Boy Williamson arrive at either one of the two international airports Paris-Charles de Gaulle and Paris-Orly in France 1963 for the American Folk Blues Festival concerts. By Jean-Pierre Leloir.
Taken in Roger Eagles flat, Chorlton, Manchester. Oct 1963. This photo is considered by many to be one of Sonny Boy’s finest photos…what do you think? Photo by Brian Smith.
Sonny Boy clowning onstage at the Marquee Club, London 1963. Photo By Jeremy Fletcher.
Sonny Boy with KFFA radio station owner Sam Anderson and Robert Junior Lockwood. The man behind them standing against the wall with the guitar case at his feet is possibly Joe Willie Wilkins. There is also an unknown female. Sonny Boy and Robert Junior signed contracts with KFFA/King Biscuit Flour in December 1941 which should date this photo to around 1941/42. By Ivey Gladin.
Backstage in Paris 1964. By Jean-Pierre Leloir.
Elmore James with Sonny Boy, Chicago 1953. According to Houston Stackhouse Sonny Boy and Elmore were good friends but even that did not stop Sonny Boy from his old bad habit of taking off with his band’s money and in this case $50 due to Elmore. Upon their next meeting Elmore whacked Sonny Boy over the head with a mic stand for his $50 loss…they still remained friends after. From Yannick and Margo Bruynoghe Collection.
Sonny Boy at Roger Eagles flat, autographing a photo of himself appearing at the El Bossa Nova club, Manchester, October 1963. By Brian Smith.
Sonny Boy in the home of German photographer Stefanie Wiesand. He recorded seven home recording’s here six appeared on the album “Solo Harp” coupled with a similar session from “Big” Walter Horton on Document 575 . There is also an unreleased track believed to be the only track of Sonny Boy playing the guitar! By Stefanie Wiesand, Baden-Baden, Sep 1963. Courtesy of Mario Hemken.
Clifton James, Sonny Boy and unknown person backstage at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, AFBF tour, 1964. By Brian Smith.
Sunnyland Slim, Willie Dixon, Clifton James, Sonny Boy and Hubert Sumlin appearing as part of The American Folk Blues Festival at the Birmingham Town Hall in October 23rd, 1964.
At the Cavern Club, Liverpool with compere Bob Wooler. 22nd January 1964. By Peter Kaye.
At the Cavern Club, Liverpool. Sonny Boy was backed on both occasions at the Cavern Club by the Yardbirds. January 22nd, 1964. By Peter Kaye.
Sonny Boy with Cavern Club owner Ray McFall who remembered that the second time he appeared at the Cavern Club Liverpool he witnessed Sonny Boy over one day consume nearly FOUR bottles of his favorite tipple Johnny Walker red label swigging the Johnny Walker from the bottle and then taking a swig of coke from another bottle and still perform an afternoon and evening show without missing a trick!
Sonny Boy first appeared at the Cavern Club Liverpool as the headline act for the first ever Merseyside Festival of Rhythm and Blues. 22nd Jan, 1964. by Peter Kaye.
Sonny Boy in Paris 1964. By Jean-Pierre Leloir.
Sonny Boy cupping his harp and mic appearing at the Marquee 1963. Most of his recordings are of him playing unamplified, except for a Chess records session in 1957 he played his harmonica cupped or cupped very close to the mic probably at the request of Chess themselves. But it was nothing new for Sonny Boy, Sunnyland Slim remembers the first time he saw him at the Sportsman hall in Caruthersville, MO playing amplified through the hall PA system in 1935! By Tony Evans.
Another iconic Trumpet Records publicity photograph from 1953/54.
Publicity shot from Granada TV show ‘I Hear The Blues’ 1963. Possibly by Val Wilmer.

Publicity photograph for Storyville Records. 1963. By Bengt H. Malmqvist.

Chess Records promo.

Chess 1536. 1969.

Sonny Boy’s Sonet LP!

Possibly a Chess/Checker publicity shot from around the early to mid 1960’s.
Sonny Boy on stage at the Esquire Club, Sheffield. He played the club three times with local backing bands.
Sonny Boy on stage at the Esquire Club, Sheffield.
Sonny Boy, performing on stage in Vienna as part of the American Folk Blues Festival tour 1963. By Lutz Fuernsinn.
Appearing on the UK TV show “Ready Steady Go!” January 8th 1965. By Val Wilmer.
Sonny Boy pictured here with Irish Jazz singer Ottilie Patterson, wife of UK Jazz musician Chris Barber, in his only movie appearance. Sonny Boy appeared very briefly but also played harmonica in the movies title song ”Where Has Poor Mickey Gone” 1964.
A color tinted photo of Sonny Boy with Irish Jazz singer Ottilie Patterson, wife of UK Jazz musician Chris Barber, in his only movie appearance. Sonny Boy appeared very briefly but also played harmonica in the movies title song ”Where Has Poor Mickey Gone” 1964.
Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson, Earl Phillips and Little Walter, Chicago, 1953 Photograph by Big Bill Broonzy. Courtesy Yannick Bruynoghe.

Sonny Boy just to the very far right on stage with Long John Baldry and the Hoochie Coochie Men in the UK 1964.

By Tony Gale.

At the Marquee Club, London. By Jeremy Fletcher.

Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson with two unidentified people at the Marquee Club, London 1963. By Jeremy Fletcher.

Sonny Boy being photographed by Charlie Gillett 1964. By Chris Morphet.

Part of flyer advertising Sonny Boy appearing at the Esquire Club, Sheffiled.

In Denmark 1964. By Jan Persson.

Iconic shot of Sonny Boy at the Brentwood Drill Hall, Leicester 1964 by Chris Morphet.

1964 by Val Wilmer.

Tony White in the Bucks Advertiser wrote.
Willie Nix, Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Jr Lockwood pose for a portrait circa 1950 in Memphis, Tennessee.
BLUES UNLIMITED No 24 July/August 1965. Photograph of Sonny at the Marquee 1963 by Mike Rowe.
Charly Records LP 10027 1985.
1964 AFBF ensemble (The British Tour): Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Sleepy John Estes, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Sunnyland Slim, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Hubert Sumlin By Jean-Pierre Leloir.
Willie Dixon and Sonny Boy in Europe on the American Folk Blues Festival tour 1963.
In the UK 1963. By Jeremy Fletcher.
Sonny Boy Williamson And The Yardbirds, recorded “Live” 8 December 1963 at the Craw-Daddy Club, Richmond. 1971 9-track re-issue UK pressing on Philips Mono “International Series.”
Sonny Boy Williamson with members of the Yardbirds, U.K., early 1960s. Photo courtesy Phil Wight/Blues & Rhythm Magazine.
Arhoolie Records 2020. Released 1970.
Sonny Boy and his microphone! Photo by Mike Rowe.
Sonny Boy Williamson II
Sonny Boy Williamson II
Sonny Boy Williamson, Willie Dixon and Otis Spann!
Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin’ Wolf!
L- R Memphis Slim, Big Joe Williams, Sonny Boy Williamson and Lonnie Johnson performing live on stage at Fairfield Hall, Croydon 18th October 1963. Photo by Jeremy Fletcher.
Sonny Boy lying down on stage and playing his harmonica as he had done many times for audiences throughout his performing career this time for an audience in the UK at the Marquee Club, London 1963. By Mike Rowe.
Sonny Boy performing at Marquee Club in London. 1963. By Tony Evans.

Sonny Boy at Marquee Club in London. 1963. By Tony Evans.

Sonny Boy Williamson II portrait photo Denmark, 1963 by Bengt H. Malmqvist/Jan Person. Photo courtesy Rien Wisse/Block Magazine.

Another Sonny Boy Williamson II portrait photo Denmark, 1963 by Bengt H. Malmqvist/Jan Person. Photo courtesy Rien Wisse/Block Magazine.

American Folk Blues Festival, 1963, from top to bottom: (cabin crew), Memphis Slim, Otis Spann, Muddy Waters, Billy Stepney, Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Joe Williams, Len Kunstadt, Victoria Spivey, Matt Murphy, Willie Dixon. Photographer unknown. Photo courtesy Rien Wisse/Block Magazine.

Limited edition EP from Denmark 1963 (thanks to Gerard Robs and Rien Wisse/Block Magazine).

American Folk Blues Festival, 1963, Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Joe Williams, Memphis Slim, Muddy Waters. Photo by Karl Schneider, courtesy Rien Wisse/Block Magazine.

Sonny Boy Williamson II at the American Folk Blues Festival in Germany, 1963. Photos by Heinz Wolf courtesy of Rien Wisse/Block Magazine.

Sonny Boy at Pepper’s Lounge, 1962. Photo by Georges Adins courtesy Rien Wisse/Block Magazine.

American Folk Blues Festival 1964. Left to right: Hammie Nixon, Willie Dixon, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Sonny Boy Williamson, Clifton James, Hubert Sumlin, Sleepy John Estes, Sunnyland Slim, Howlin’ Wolf. Photographer unknown. Photo courtesy Rien Wisse/Block Magazine.

Portrait by Dutch artist Piet Klaasse (collection Rien Wisse).

Sonny Boy Williamson II. Photo Valerie Wilmer.

Sonny Boy Williamson II. Photo Valerie Wilmer.

Posing for a photograph backstage. Behind Sonny Boy is another blues legend Sleepy John Estes. Pleyel Hall, Paris, France 1964. By Herve Gloaguen.

Performing onstage at the Pleyel Hall, Paris, France 1964. By Herve Gloaguen.

Sonny Boy relaxing between sets at the Jazz House, Wiesbaden, Germany. Oct 22, 1963. By Stefanie Wiesand.
Sonny Boy Williamson autograph next to his photo in a magazine!
A screen capture of Sonny Boy Williamson from the Max Moore King Biscuit Time Roadshow tour home movie circa 1942.
A screen capture of Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Jr. Lockwood from the Max Moore King Biscuit Time Roadshow tour home movie circa 1942.
Sonny Boy Williamson and Peck Curtis playing on a shop front porch on tour in the South for King Biscuit Time. Early 1950’s.
One of Sonny Boy’s most well known songs. Recorded at his first Checker session on 12th August, 1955. It was one of five songs recorded that session. Like many of his lyrics he takes an everyday, mundane subject like gossiping and along with his stellar bandmates turns it into a blues music masterpiece!
Sonny Boy in the UK 1963 possibly by Mike Rowe.
Victoria Spivey and Sonny Boy on a bus in Germany 1963 as part of the American Folk Blues Festival tour.
This is from an autographed program guide for the 1963 American Folk Blues Festival and comes to us from collector Paul De Bruyckerz who was actually at this show and got the signatures directly from the artists!
A photograph of Sonny Boy taken in England in 1964. The location and photographer are unknown.
A photograph of Sonny Boy taken in England in 1964. The location and photographer are unknown.
Sonny Boy at the 1964 American Folk Blues Festival, Free Trade Hall, Manchester. Photo Brian Smith.
This 1963 poster from the Blues & Rhythm Magazine archives courtesy Phil Wight.

Sonny Boy Williamson II was the master of hand effects, creating a crying sound by strategically altering air flow by cupping, then opening his  huge hands around the harmonica. This photo from Fairfield Hall, Croydon, England by Jeremy Fletcher.

Sonny Boy and Willie Dixon boarding tour bus in Baden Baden, Germany 1964. Photographer unknown.

James Cotton and Sonny Boy Williamson, Chicago 1960’s by Georges Adins.

The Muleskinners were the backing band for Sonny Boy twice when he was in the UK. They also backed Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter. Their keyboard player Ian “Mac” McLagan would later go on to join the English band the Small Faces.

Sonny Boy Corn Meal package!

Photographed in May 1965. By Chris Strachwitz.
Publicity shot for Sonny Boy’s return and final appearance on KFFA radio show King Biscuit Time with Houston Stackhouse and Peck Curtis. May, 1965. By Chris Strachwitz.
Another publicity shot with Peck Curtis on drums. May, 1965. By Chris Strachwitz.
May, 1965 by Chris Strachwitz.
One of some of the very last photographs taken of Sonny Boy. May, 1965. By Chris Strachwitz.
Sonny Boy Williamson Aleck (Rice) Miller lying in state. He passed away in his sleep in Helena AR May 25th, 1965.
Wade Walton (Sonny Boy’s friend and barber) at SBW’s grave in Tutwiler, Mississippi, 1981. Photo by Rien Wisse.
Sonny Boy’s grave near Tutwiler, Mississippi. The grave stone was placed by Lillian McMurray, whose Trumpet Records label made the first Sonny Boy Williamson recordings in 1951.

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