Alex “Rice” Miller, a.k.a. “Sonny Boy Williamson”, “Sonny Boy Williamson II”, “Little Boy Blue”, “W.M.”, “Harmonica Blowin’ Slim” ”One Man Band” and the list could go! A true legendary giant of American blues Sonny Boy has an enduring, timeless appeal that has crossed generations and will no doubt out- last us all! Born in the heart of the Mississippi Delta in Glendora in the county of Tallahatchie County and raised on plantations in the Glendora/Tutwiler locality. He was born to Millie Ford and named Alex Miller after his step-father Jim Miller. He had several brothers and sisters and one named Willie, was reputedly a twin (a name Rice would use in later life) and it was his family who gave Alex the nickname ”Rice”.
Sonny Boy would endure a typical Mississipian childhood years at the time of poverty, boredom, back breaking work and little or no education and Saturday trips to town and Church on Sundays. Something very bad happened at home for Rice and a serious, violent bust up with his father forced him to flee the family home.
Rice is remembered as playing harmonica since the early 1920’s, but would only sing and play ”Christian” songs saying he would not play ”sinful music”. In time however it would be his harmonica and sin that would keep him alive through the his endless journeys south then north into Arkansas and Missouri and of course the Great Depression all of this would leave Rice a very tough, bitter and hard drinking person, gaining a reputation as ”evil”.
Rice had paid his dues musically and was well known by many other legendary Bluesmen of the time he had honed his craft playing pops, Blues, Hillbilly in fact anything that anyone paid for or stopped to listen to him.
By the mid 1930’s he had started to spend a lot of time around Greenville, Belzoni and Helens he befriended many local musicians. Among these were Willie Love, Elmore James, Robert Johnson, Robert Nighthawk and Robert Jr Lockwood. After this Rice would meet more Bluesman, survive the Depression and Prohibition, have an illigitemate son, Eddie Baker to Ardelle Baker and move on again meeting Howlin’ Wolf teach him harp and date his sister in a sort ”marriage” at the time but after the death of his musical partner Robert Johnson Rice teamed up with Johnsons step son Robert Jr Lockwood and the two travelled a lot until Lockwood moved to St Louis and again being his own man and not really caring about anything he he did his own thing until Lockwood returned in 1941 and both would be snapped up by the newly formed King Biscuit Flour company part of a family business now being run the the son Max S. Moore who wanted a highly skilled act to promote his product on local radio station KFFA so acting on a tip off he witnessed Rice and Robert Jr in action and struck a deal with them to promote his highly enriched flour aimed at the local Black population and as this was a premuim but affordable product he wanted a premuim name to go along with this and this is where Moore bestowed the name Sonny Boy Williamson upon Rice as Sonny Boy Wiliamson (John Lee) from Chicago was as big a name in the blues harmonica world at the time as you could find so Moore recognising the also the huge talent of Rice this could mean big buisiness for him….and he was not wrong!
But even with the success of King Biscuit Flour and KFFA Sonny Boy would still take off and roam sometimes stealing all the band money, working for other radio stations, promoting other products. Eventually Sonny Boy recorded at last with the Trumpet label in December 1951 his contract would eventually be sold to the Chess brothers label in Chicago where Sonny Boy would cut many sides. With the popularity of Blues now catching on around the world Sonny was invited to join the American Folk Blues Festivals touring Europe and the UK. Sonny Boy would have an enormous impact on these tours and literally stole all the shows he appeared on!
He went onto to record many times in Europe and was also filmed numerous times leaving a very rich legacy on media. But by 1964 Sonny Boy was ill and although wanting to stay and hopefully reside in the UK he had to return home and it is almost certain that in his own mind he knew he was returning to die. He left Britain on the 29th April 1965 and passed away on May 25, 1965.