Thursday, April 2, 2020

A Visit to the Grave of Sonny Boy Williamson II in 1971

James La Rocca, "I Got Ramblin' on Ma Mind," Blues Unlimited 82 (June 1971): 5-8.

On Wednesday, August 26th, I began my journey from my home in New Orleans, to Memphis where I had arranged to meet Houston Stackhouse. When I had last seen him, he expressed a desire to tour through the Arkansas-Mississippi area where he had played in past years, and I was on my way to keep him company. 

On my way, I stopped off in Canton, Mississippi, hoping to obtain some information on Elmore James. At a gas station I was given the address of a supposed brother of Elmore's. I made a note to return to Canton when I had more time, and follow this up.

I arrived at Memphis in the late afternoon and went to Joe Willie Wilkins' house, where Houston Stackhouse now lives. I stayed there overnight and early Thursday morning we drove to Little Rock, Arkansas. Here, Stackhouse occasionally played with Sonny Blair, Willie Wright (g), and James Harris (d) in the early '50s. After an unsuccessful attempt to locate Harris at a pool hall in town we ventured to College Station, a small Black community just outside Little Rock. Stackhouse remembered that Willie Wright lived there, but was unsure of the exact street. We spent a frustrating time driving up one street after another without finding the right one. Finally, we stopped in front of a house to ask directions. The tooting horn brought someone out to assist us - it was Willie Wright! Were we surprised and glad to see him.

Stackhouse was extremely pleased to see his old friend and I proceeded to ask Willie about Sonny Blair and the old group. I was told that Sonny had died in 1966 and that his real name was Sullivan Jackson. Willie had met James Harris and Sonny at Little Rock in 1955 and they formed a band called The Houserockers, which would include Stackhouse if he was in town. They played regularly until Blair died and since then Willie has not played much. Blair liked songs by Sonny Boy (Rice Miller) and these plus some originals and improvisations made up the ''Houserockers'' repertoire. In fact, Blair even quit the group for a short time to play with the "King Biscuit Boys" in West Helena. We thanked Willie, bade him farewell, and moved on.

Stackhouse recalled a great guitar player by the name of Ellis (CeDell) Davis who lived in Pine Bluff, so this became our next destination. We went to the "Jack Rabbit Club," one of the largest juke joints in the area and found it closed. Its owner, Son Sullivan, had died in '67. Stackhouse told me of the greats that Sullivan had booked there in the '40s and 50s...Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Joe Hill Louis and others including himself and the Houserockers. The youngest son of  Ellis Davis then took us to him and we arrived at his home on Thursday evening. He played for us till 1:00 am and then we stayed the night. His guitar-playing wasn't very impressive and he claimed he was out of practice, but his singing was surprisingly strong, in a Muddy Waters-Jimmy Rogers vein.

On Friday morning we went on to Clarksdale, Mississippi to find Raymond Hill at an address supplied by Mike Leadbitter. Stackhouse had known his father, Henry Hill, a pianist and juke joint operator. On finding Raymond we learned that his father had died recently. We learned he had first met Ike Turner when Ike was on the piano in a group of Henry's. Raymond joined Ike's band in 1953 and played with them in St. Louis for a period. In 1963 he formed an instrumental group, that recorded in Memphis before breaking up, in 1968. He told us that he had done many sessions with people like Clayton Love, Albert King, Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner.

It was late Friday afternoon when we left. Stackhouse wanted to go to West Helena to see Peck Curtis, but I persuaded hIm to travel an extra 20 miles to Tutwiler where I hoped we'd locate the grave of Sonny Boy Williamson (Miller). In town, we found someone who led us to the Whitfield Cemetary. The graveyard was two-thirds overrun by weeds six feet high and a tractor driver working nearby helped with the search. After much work, we uncovered a marker with a faded "Williamson" nameplate and the name of the funeral home. These facts were used to verify its authenticity. It is sad to note that two of Sonny Boy's sisters still live in Tutwiler and yet they had let his grave vanish under the weeds.

Leaving Tutwiler we traveled to West Helena and found Peck Curtis at his home. Stackhouse and Peck are t11e closest of friends and were happy to see one another again. While they reminisced about old times, I copied some of Peck's photos of Sonny Boy and Sonny Blair. When we mentioned finding Sonny Boy's grave Peck recounted this story.

In 1965, Sonny Boy was living in West Helena and playing with Peck on the King Biscuit show. They were to do a broadcast at noon one day, but Peck was unable to contact Sonny Boy by phone. He told the radio station to play records while he went to find out what was happening. He knocked on Sonny Boy's door and, getting no answer, went in to find him dead in bed...

After a little more talk we thanked Peck and headed back to Memphis and Joe Willie Wilkins. 

In Memphis, Stackhouse plays at ''Ann Brown's Club" every Friday and Saturday. After dropping him off there, I decided to go inside and see the club. It was pretty rowdy, with everyone drinking and fighting, and the musicians drunk and uninspired. The combined conditions led me to amuse myself elsewhere until the gig was over when I picked up Stackhouse and went back home with him to stay the night.

Saturday was spent checking out-dated addresses of musicians in the Memphis area.

I searched for Walter Bradford, Scott Jr., L.B.Lawson, Willie Nix, Jimmy de Berry, Albert Williams, and Big Memphis Ma Rainey (actually Lillie MAE GLOVER) without success. Giving up, and with time running out, I made my way back to New Orleans.

A sad footnote: Stackhouse called me to say that Peck died on November 1st.

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