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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

He Lived and Died the Blues: Jackson's Sonny Boy

He Lived and Died the Blues:
Jackson's Sonny Boy took his Music to the Top
By Mary S. Reed - 1990

Part of the blues died one June 1948 night when Jackson's Sonny Boy Williamson was beaten to death on a Chicago street. A friend said it was because of 50 cents in the famous musician's pocket: A woman had given Sonny Boy the money to play the blues for her. Then her man beat it out of Sonny Boy when he wouldn't give the money back.

It would have been like Sonny Boy to sing about that 50 cents the next day. For Sonny Boy Williamson could wail his blues on a two-bit harp like no one before him. By the time the violence and poverty of his world caught up with him that night, the harmonica — and the blues — would never be the same.

"He was the single most influential blues harmonica player of his day and possibly of all time," said David Evans, Memphis State University blues expert. Few in his hometown of Jackson remember Sonny Boy or know of his fame, said T.W. Utley, Sonny Boy's younger brother, who lives within a few miles of the musician's birthplace and grave.

Sonny Boy's 25-cent harmonica and down-and-out songs became his ticket out of Madison County's cotton fields in the 1920s. But in the end, he couldn't escape the South's poverty. His body lies in a rural Madison County grave marked only by a rusting, metal marker — the kind the funeral homes stick in the ground until money buys a grave-stone.

A faded piece of paper stuck behind dirty glass on that marker gives his name: John Lee Williamson. His age: 34. The day he died: June 1, 1948. "Now, I want to bury my body, way down in Jackson, Tennessee," Sonny Boy would sing while his feet shuffled the two-step and his right hand cupped the harmonica to his mouth.

The handsome Sonny Boy — always friendly, smiling and setting up the whiskey-loving house with drinks — could hold an audience like any good preacher offering hope from everyday troubles.

Sonny Boy turned the harmonica into a lead instrument when others were using it for background music. He went from singing to playing so effortlessly that it was hard to tell where his voice stopped and the harmonica began.

"He inspired so many imitators, he was like the Michael Jackson of his day in the blues community,- said Jim O'Neal, founder of Living Blues Magazine. 

In taverns and tourist-filled clubs where they still sing the increasingly popular blues, Sonny Boy's influence is felt whenever a harmonica is played or a singer pulls out one of Sonny Boy's songs from his bag of tricks, said Bob Shatkin, who teaches the harmonica in Brooklyn and has been playing it for 35 years.

“He’s a hero.”

The more he plays, Shatkin said, the more he appreciates Sonny Boy's skills.

"Every harp (harmonica) player owes him a debt. He's a hero. Even 41 years after his death, he's still thought of by musicians in Chicago as wonderful." Sonny Boy was born March 30, 1914, near Britton Lane in south-west Madison County, with the blues in his blood and a need to go places.


His father, Race Williamson, who died when Sonny Boy was a baby, played the guitar. His mother, Nancy Utley, gave her son his first harmonica for Christmas in 1925. When he wasn't chopping cot-ton, milking cows or doing other farm chores, Sonny Boy taught himself the harmonica by listening and playing along with records on the old wind-up record player, said Utley.

From the start, though, Sonny Boy was itching to go—itching to get out of the house each morning, itching to get out of town to play his music, itching to move north, said Utley, who as younger brother tagged along. "That boy's in a hurry," Utley once overheard his grandmother tell his mother. "He's not going to live all of his days."

“The Promised Land”

Each memory of his free-spirited brother brings a grin to Utley's face. He tells of the time he was 10 and Sonny Boy was 15 when they jumped a freight train to visit his brother's girlfriend in Mississippi and of the whipping they got from their mother when they got back.

Later, Sonny Boy would hop other freight trains to sing at traveling fairs and play the hot, raunchy juke joints of the Southern countryside, where violence flared as quickly as a downed drink.

He made his way to Chicago —a promised land for many Southern blacks who found jobs scarce and times hard back home. There, men and women —dressed fancily and eager to spend their money on a good time — packed the nightclubs by the hundreds.

Sonny Boy rode his blues all the way to Carnegie Hall in New York City. "Sonny Boy was one of the most popular musicians on Chicago's south side," said Jackson native Dave Clark, who made his name in the blues recording business. Clark said he took Sonny Boy to Chicago for his first recording in 1937 of his popular blues tune, "Good Morning Little School Girl."

An Irresistible Beat

Sonny Boy's beat was so irresistible that he put pillows under his feet during recording sessions to muffle the sound of his feet tapping to the music.

Sonny Boy's records sold on RCA's Bluebird label — priced to be affordable by the masses earning some extra spending money in urban factories. With his harmonica the lead instrument, Sonny Boy would be accompanied by whatever musicians were available — often someone on the guitar, piano or drums.

In West Tennessee, he played with musicians like Brownsville's Yank Rachell on the mandolin, Hammie Nixon on the guitar and harmonica and guitarist Sleepy John Estes, said Dick Raichelson, a blues expert at the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis.

In Chicago, where he helped move the raw Southern country blues to a more refined urban sound, he recorded with Big Joe Williams, who played a nine-string guitar. He played with Sunnyland Slim on the piano, Big Bill Broonzy on guitar and even a young Muddy Waters, whose in-fluence on the blues would be-come legendary.

'Frigidaire Blues'

The Jackson Sun, June 6, 1948.
Sonny Boy's roots were in his songs: "I went down on Shannon Street, now to find some alcohol," he wailed in a song about a down-town Jackson street. Though many of his songs are of whiskey and women, Sonny Boy's social conscience had him singing about bill collectors, the welfare store and even his aging refrigerator. "Go get the light bulb, something's getting wrong with my Frigidaire," he sings in "Frigid-aire Blues."

"If Sonny Boy had just limited himself to the Mid-South, he may not have been as influential," said Raichelson. Memphis just wasn't the place to go for a blues musician who wanted to make a name for himself, said George "MoJo" Buford, a Memphis harmonica player who spent the greater part of his life in Chicago. There, blacks could make more money by singing in both white and black clubs, he said.

Sonny Boy's death came at the height of his career. His wife, Lacey Belle, found him propped up at the door around 2:30 a.m. — his pockets empty, his wristwatch and harmonicas stolen. He slipped into a coma and died at 6 a.m., Utley said. The story about the 50 cents is told by Little Brother Montgomery, but it's not included in the official police version of Sonny Boy's death, said Mike Leadbitter in "Nothing But the Blues."

The 70-year-old Utley doesn't know whether his brother's murderer ever was found or convict-ed. The case is filed away in a warehouse and impossible to get to, a Chicago police spokeswoman said.

Bushels of Funeral Telegrams

[Since his headstone was erected in 1990, it was believed
that his death notice, which appeared under the heading
"Colored Dead" on June 6, 1948--buried on page 15 among
the classified ads--were the only three paragraphs written
locally about the musical genius, but the Jackson Sun also
published the "Card of Thanks" written by his mother and
family, which demonstrated the harmonica player's admiration

around his hometown--June 11, 1948--T. DeWayne Moore]
Sonny Boy's funeral — with the bushels of telegrams, letters and flowers from admirers — was one of the biggest ever at Blairs Chapel CME Church. said Utley. Few of his friends, though, came down from Chicago.

Tucked back on Page 15 in The Jackson Sun's classified ads on June 6, Williamson's obituary was three paragraphs long under the heading "Colored Dead."

Utley, who worked two jobs and farmed while he and his wife Mary raised nine children, couldn't afford a headstone for Sonny Boy's grave.

Sonny Boy's death so upset his mother that she couldn't bear to see his picture or hear his records, Utley said. The family put them all away. Through the years, the records were given away. Mrs. Utley died in 1985 when she was 95 years old. Sonny Boy and Lacey Belle didn't have children. She died of cancer a couple years after him, Utley said.



Another Sonny Boy

About the time of his murder, another harmonica player, Rice Miller, took on the name of Sonny Boy Williamson and became famous in his own right.

Jackson's Sonny Boy soon became known as the original Sonny Boy Williamson.

The great clubs on Chicago's south side are gone today, but the neighborhood is still nice, said Robert S. Powell, general manager for a real-estate company there. Today, it's a residential area; Powell rents apartments that go from $500 to $1,200 a month, he said.

Blues experts and history books call Sonny Boy one of the two most influential blues harmonica players. The other is Marion "Little Walter" Jacobs. A Sonny Boy disciple, Little Walter developed Sonny Boy's style further and took the harmonica into the modern ages with amplifiers and a fuller sound. "

About the time Sonny Boy was killed, Chicago was developing as a blues center for innovation," said Evans. "He certainly would have been a major voice." "Oh, yeah, he was great," said Utley, thinking back to the joyous sound of his brother's harp. "These boys . . . these boys today can't touch him."


Nodding her head, his wife said softly, "He was smart. I would have loved to have seen just how far he would have gone."