John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson (Sonny Boy Williamson #1)

March 30, 1914 – June 1, 1948

Recording history: 120+ titles on RCA Victor/Bluebird (1937-1947)

Also recorded with: Robert Lee McCoy, Big Joe Williams, Henry Townshend, Elijah Jones, Yank Rachel, Jackson Williams, Speckled Red

Important/historic recordings:Good Morning, School Girl” (his first recording, and still one of the most popular traditional blues songs throughout the world), “Early In The Morning“, “Decoration (Day) Blues“, “My Little Machine“, “Sloppy Drunk Blues“, “Check Up On My Baby“, “Elevator Woman“, “Hoodoo Hoodoo” (aka “Hoodoo Man Blues”)

Random fact: Many famous songs in Junior Well‘s repertoire are directly taken from John Lee Williamson, including: “Hoodoo Man Blues“, “Stop Breaking Down“, “Cut That Out“, “Check Up On My Baby“, & “Early In The Morning

About: A speech impediment did very little to hold back John Lee Williamson from becoming not only one of the most important blues harmonica players in history (and the first true “Chicago-style” harp player), but also one of the most influential bluesmen of all time. Every single harmonica player who either plays “Chicago” style blues, or who has been influenced by traditional blues harmonica to almost any extent, owes some debt to the harmonica stylings and genius of the first “Sonny Boy” Williamson. His trademark sounds, licks, and breathing patterns for playing harmonica not only was a big influence in his own time and on players of his generation, but also carries on it’s influence to how blues and related styles are played to this current day.

It is interesting to notice the evolution of his playing style through his career as well. The early sides were much more basic and “lowdown” compared some of his later sides, in which you hear the influence of swing & the popular “jump blues” of the 1940’s. This evolution brought about a freer-flowing sense of phrasing and an even further exploration of cleaner single-note runs and licks, of which he is the true pioneer in blues harp. When compared to some next generation players, his playing may seem more “basic”, “rudimentary” or “simplistic”, but don’t let your ear fool you! John Lee Williamson’s style was full of subtleties, nuances, and tongue-blocked rhythmic textures that are difficult to reproduce & imitate.

Of all the modern-day harmonica players I know, I have seen and heard Rick Estrin, Joe Filisko, and Steve Guyger pay the closest stylistic tributes at times to the founding father of what is now known as “Chicago blues harmonica” – John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson.

Recommended Recordings in-print:

  • “The Original” Vol 1 – JSP (4-cd set of his earlier work as frontman AND sideman)
  • “Later Years” Vol 2 – JSP (4-cd set of his later work as frontman AND sideman)

I’ve found the best selection of blues harmonica CDs to be available at:

blues harmonica, blues harp, lessons, history

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