Sonny Boy Williamson II was an early and influential harmonica player, singer, and songwriter who went by many names and aliases. Almost everything about his childhood is a mystery full of vague dates and names. Known to be a moody, bitter, and suspicious man who drank a lot of whiskey and hobo’ed around the country, he is regarded in many ways as the ultimate blues legend. Childhood nicknames included Rice Miller because of his childhood love of milk and rice, and he began using his nickname Little Boy Blue as he drifted around the Deep South playing at juke joints and house parties. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards named their first band in 1961, Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys after Williamson himself.
He was said to be a troublemaker in his teenage years, often in trouble with the law. He would work juke joints, fish fries, country suppers, and ballgames with his interchangeable playing partners, other blues legends like Robert Johnson, Robert Nighthawk, Robert Jr. Lockwood, and Elmore James. His songs were packed with caustic wit and were full of largely autobiographical lyrics. Although he will always be known for taking his name from another well-known harmonica player (something that would probably be identity theft today!), no one sounded like him.
Williamson had an extensive career that spanned everything from a touring artist to performing on the “King Biscuit Time” show to advertise a popular brand of baking flour. He also extensively traveled Europe several times during the height of the British blues craze. During one of these tours, it is rumored that Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant stole one of his harmonicas. Sonny Boy was such a fan of the European tour and fans that he had a two-tone suit made tailored just for him with a bowler hat, matching umbrella, and an attaché case for his harmonicas. His credits on a live album recorded in Copenhagen are under the name “Big Skol,” another of his many aliases.
Some of his most well-known songs include “Don’t Start Me Talkin’,” “Help Me,” Checkin’ Up on My Baby,” and “Bring It on Home.” Many of these songs have been famously covered by other musicians, including Bob Dylan’s cover of “Don’t Start Me Talkin’” on The David Letterman Show in 1984. Led Zeppelin would record a version of “Bring It on Home” in 1969. The intro and outro were homages to Sonny Boy, while the rest of the track was an original composition by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.