Sonny Boy Williamson Biography

Sonny Boy Williamson, originally John Lee Curtis Williamson, was a blues singer and harmonica player. He was the first musician to use the nickname Sonny Boy.


Sonny Boy Williamson was born on March 30, 1914, in Jackson, Tennessee. His first recording took place in 1937 with "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," and he was a quick hit with Southern black audiences. Through to the late 1940s, Williamson continued to record such popular hits as "Sugar Mama Blues," "Hoodoo Hoodoo" and "Shake the Boogie." On June 1, 1948, he was robbed and murdered in Chicago, Illinois.

Early Years

The original Sonny Boy Williamson, often referred to as Sonny Boy Williamson I, was born John Lee Curtis Williamson in 1914 near Jackson, Tennessee. (Another Sonny Boy Williamson, also a blues harmonica player and singer, would come along years later.) He picked up the name Sonny Boy because he was only about 16 when he started to follow the Mississippi River north with his harmonica to seek a life as a musician.

By his late teens, Williamson was touring with established musicians, playing what was called "country blues." Williamson settled in Chicago around 1934 and quickly caught the attention of the local musicians.

A chiefly self-taught virtuoso, he began recording for Bluebird Records in 1937, singing and playing harmonica. His first song was "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," an instant classic that was later covered numerous times, by bands such as the Yardbirds and the Grateful Dead. Other hits from that year include "Sugar Mama Blues" and "Blue Bird Blues," both of which are also regarded as early classics.

Under Bluebird's Lester Melrose—who was responsible for launching the careers of many a blues legend—Williamson appeared on other musicians' songs as often as he cut his own, and his name spread like wildfire in the blues world.

Hitting His Stride

With his unrivaled harmonica playing and vocal skills that were unique and instantly recognizable (due to a speech impediment), Williamson began to churn out records that would redefine the blues sound, cutting more than 120 over the next 10 years. Beyond being popular, Williams' songs featured a harmonica sound that would become undeniably influential. Songs such as "Decoration Blues" and "Whiskey Headed Woman Blues" were followed by "T.B. Blues," "Tell Me Baby" and "Jivin' the Blues," all of which went a long way to solidify his reputation and made him the most influential harmonica player of his generation.

An Early Death

In 1947, Williamson's song "Shake the Boogie" was a nationwide hit, and he was at the height of his fame. Unfortunately for Williamson and the blues world, he would not live much longer. In June 1948, Williamson was returning from a performance on Chicago's South Side when he was robbed, beaten and stabbed with an ice pick. He died on the sidewalk, only 34 years old. Later that year, "Better Cut That Out" became a posthumous hit for Williamson, and he was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1980.

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