(1899/1908/1912?) – May 25, 1965
Recording history: 1951-1964 for Trumpet, Checker/Chess, Storyville
Also recorded with: Elmore James, Josh White, Bobo “Slim” Thomas, Robert “Dudlow” Taylor, James “Peck” Curtis, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Tampa Red, Willie Nix, Baby Boy Warren, Charles Clark
Important/historic recordings: “Mighty Long Time“, “Eyesight To The Blind“, “Help Me“, “Bye Bye Bird“, “One Way Out“, “Don’t Start Me To Talkin’“
Random fact: Sonny Boy Willaimson #2 was supposedly on a gig with Robert Johnson the night of his death, and warned him about possible poison in a bottle of liquor. Legend has it that Sonny Boy knocked the first bottle out of his hand, but when a second bottle of “free” liquor came Robert’s way, unfortunately Robert didn’t listen.
About: Born Aleck Ford in Mississippi, he soon adopted his stepfathers surname (Miller). As early as the 1930′s, Miller began traveling and developing his musical & entertainment skills around Mississippi and Arkansas. Miller met and connected with a young Robert Lockwood Jr. at this time, and became somewhat of a local radio personality billed as “Sonny Boy Williamson” on KFFA (Helena, AR) advertising King Biscuit Flour (more than likely to capitalize off of the popularity of John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson). Robert Lockwood Jr, who was somewhat of a step-son to Robert Johnson, went on to become a longtime accompanist to Rice Miller, even throughout many of his later recordings on Checker/Chess in the 1950′s-60′s.
When the Trumpet label folded in 1955, Miller started recording for the popular Checker label in Chicago, and became part of the “post-war” Chicago blues scene (along with other artists on Checker/Chess such as Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Howlin’ Wolf). This is the era of which most people are familiar with and think of when they hear the name “Sonny Boy Williamson”. Many of his songs were made up or “composed” on-the-spot, and more than several last to this day as influential songs in the blues & rock fields, such as “One Way Out“, “Don’t Start Me To Talkin’“, “Ninety-Nine“, “Bring It On Home To Me“, “Help Me“, and “Nine Below Zero“. Miller also made some fine recordings (some solo, some with Memphis Slim, Matt “Guitar” Murphy & others) in 1963 in Copenhagen and Stockholm. Though some of his life remains mysterious (no confirmed birth date, and many conflicting stories about his early life) he remains one of the most influential and beloved of all traditional blues harpists.
Recommended Recordings in-print:
- “King Biscuit Time” – Arhoolie (early Trumpet recordings)
- “Goin’ In Your Direction” – Acoustic Archives (early Trumpet recordings)
- “Clownin’ With The World” – Acoustic Archives (early Trumpet recordings)
- “His Best” – MCA/Chess (Checker/Chess recordings)
- “Real Folk Blues/More Real Folk Blues” – MCA/Chess (Checker/Chess recordings)
Recommended DVDs in-print (with some Rice Miller footage):
- American Folk Blues Festival Vol. 1
- American Folk Blues Festival Vol. 2
- American Folk Blues Festival Vol. 4 – British Tours
I’ve found the best selection of blues harmonica CDs to be available at: