Sonny Boy Williamson – Keep it to Yourself
Alex or Aleck Miller (né Ford, possibly December 5, 1912 – May 24, 1965), known later in his career as Sonny Boy Williamson, was an American blues harmonica player, singer and songwriter. He was an early and influential blues harp stylist who recorded successfully in the 1950s and 1960s. Miller used a variety of names, including Rice Miller and Little Boy Blue, before settling on Sonny Boy Williamson, which was also the name of a popular Chicago blues singer and harmonica player. Later, to distinguish the two, Miller became widely known as Sonny Boy Williamson II.
He first recorded with Elmore James on “Dust My Broom” and some of his popular songs include “Don’t Start Me Talkin’“, “Help Me“, “Checkin’ Up on My Baby“, and “Bring It On Home“. He toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival and recorded with English rock musicians, including the Yardbirds, the Animals, and Jimmy Page. “Help Me” became a blues standard and many blues and rock artists have recorded his songs.
Year of birth
Born Alex Ford (pronounced “Aleck”) on the Sara Jones Plantation in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, his date and year of birth are a matter of uncertainty. He claimed to have been born on December 5, 1899, but Dr. David Evans, professor of music and an ethnomusicologist at the University of Memphis, claims to have found census record evidence that he was born around 1912, being seven years old on February 2, 1920, the day of the census. His gravestone in or near Tutwiler, Mississippi, set up by record company owner Lillian McMurry twelve years after his death, gives his date of birth as March 11, 1908, but has no basis to be recognized as accurate.
He lived and worked with his sharecropper stepfather, Jim Miller, whose last name he soon adopted, and mother, Millie Ford, until the early 1930s. Beginning in the 1930s, he traveled around Mississippi and Arkansas and encountered Big Joe Williams, Elmore James andRobert 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. Miller developed his style and raffish stage persona during these years. Willie Dixonrecalled seeing Lockwood and Miller playing for tips in Greenville, Mississippi in the 1930s. He entertained audiences with novelties such as inserting one end of the harmonica into his mouth and playing with no hands. At this time he was often known as “Rice” Miller — a childhood nickname stemming from his love of rice and milk — or as Little Boy Blue.
In 1941 Miller was hired to play the King Biscuit Time show, advertising the King Biscuit brand of baking flour 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 Sonny Boy Williamson (birth name John Lee Curtis Williamson, died 1948). 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.
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