Monday, December 19, 2011

Sonny Boy Williamson: An Appreciation

Written 1990, revised 2000.



That he was not a good man I have little doubt. Even now, over 25 years after he first came to these shores it takes little to get those who had business with Sonny Boy (Aleck “Rice” Miller) Williamson to spin yarns. He carried a hip flask full of whisky and also a knife. “It was well known that if you fucked with him, he would cut you”, remembers Robbie Robertson of The Band, one of the last musicians to work with him after he went home in 1965. Indeed, on that initial visit to England, on one of the original package tours of American blues artists, he got into a violent skirmish with another blues singer at a London hotel. “But maybe it was all staged for our benefit”, wonders Neil Slaven, who was there at the time. For Sonny Boy was always a master showman. A big man, over six feet tall, the most enduring image of him is the one he adopted on that first European tour: a businessman’s suit hand-tailored in harlequin light and dark grey, leather brief case, bowler hat and folded umbrella. Thus attired, Sonny Boy would lead whichever band was trying to follow him through all manner of hoops and disasters. The Animals might have fared slightly better than The Yardbirds but, listening to the ragged tapes, one can only feel sympathy for the enthusiastic confusion of these young, inexperienced white British musicians as “The Grand Vizier of the blues” sends them down the garden path again and again, occasionally pausing long enough to play some quite magnificent harmonica along the way. (For verification check out a transcendent “Lonesome Cabin” recorded at Birmingham Town Hall with The Yardbirds on February 28th 1964.)

When he returned from his adventures in Europe he made the oft-quoted remark to Robbie Robertson: “Those English kids, they wanna play the blues so bad, and all they do is play the blues so bad.” Obviously his fellow travelling peers and contemporaries had suited him better and it is to Granada Television’s eternal credit that they managed to film some of these visiting blues statesmen for a modest documentary titled “I Hear The Blues” - featuring, among others, Muddy Waters and Memphis Slim as well as Sonny Boy. Backed by Slim and Matt “Guitar” Murphy, Sonny Boy insinuates himself through a lubricious “Keep It To Yourself”. It’s essential viewing: on the final chorus, after some deadpan clowning with the harmonica, Sonny Boy pitches a long high flat 7th of exquisite aching beauty which falls unexpectedly into a slurred suggestion of a favourite vamp. Meanwhile, his eyes: dead, drunk and defeated. Possibly well past 60 years old (his real birth date has never been established and Sonny Boy would always give a different one to whoever asked), he didn’t have much longer to live. 

In his very last recording sessions, Sonny Boy dispensed with songs altogether. Instead he would just sing about whatever was on his mind as he stood there at the microphone. His playing at the end has been harshly criticised or indulgently dismissed as the work of a master who has lost his power. But for me, his playing on the last Chess session (unreleased at the time) is truly heroic. Be it drunkenness, senility or (as seems most likely) a combination of both, Sonny Boy’s playing here is completely free. The infamous break where he plays the same high-register motif all the way through two choruses is a perfect example of this. Forego form in the blues and all you are left with is feeling. Dissolve your preconceptions about what a blues harmonica solo is supposed to sound like and listen to this playing. Is it not free? Does it not soar?

First time I heard Sonny Boy Williamson I was quite literally floored. Halfway through the album side I was trying to play along. By the end of the side I was lying on the floor. That anybody could rock that hard, that anybody could sound so shifty, lecherous, tricky and sardonic – and simultaneously so vulnerable. And his timing? Good God, this man’s timing was the very devil! His music became an obsession for me and I would need to hear it every day. I cajoled my local library into getting hold of the five-album boxed set containing virtually everything the man had recorded for Chess in the last ten years of his life. I thought this would surely satisfy my addiction. Not a bit of it. Five albums later I still wasn’t satiated, if anything I wanted more. The man was a genius. The power of the harmonica on “Ninety-Nine” was enough to level a high-rise estate. The titanic, elemental depth of his playing on “Trust My Baby”, the lyrics to “Your Funeral And My Trial”, or “Fattening Frogs For Snakes”, or “Unseen Eye” –  all the lyrics, in fact. And there were so many of them, so many great songs: variations on a theme that was old and mean and watchful, wry and world-weary but still lustful, mischievous, full of sly back-handed gallows humour. Then there was “Help Me”. I’d heard innumerable bands thrash through that time honoured “Green Onions” riff but this was something else entirely. Could it be that the song wasn’t emotional blackmail after all? Not mere bluster but a heartfelt request from an old man with a drink problem to his long-suffering wife? And there again, that harmonica, how did he do that? The way it sounds like an organ, the way it hovers and chops. How did he manage to juggle those lazy offbeat lines with that husky, intimately intoned straight-beat vocal – and deliver both with such effortless panache? No doubt, Sonny Boy was a true master. 

Totally immersed, I devoured the long and learned essay by Neil Slaven that accompanied the box set. From it I inferred the implicit notion that the Chess recordings are all very fine, no doubt, but perhaps inferior to Sonny Boy’s earlier recordings made for the small Jackson, Mississippi based Trumpet label run by Sonny Boy’s first manager, Lillian McMurray. I flipped. You mean there’s better stuff than this? Impossible. Still, I made it down to Collets in Charing Cross Road and parted with an inordinate sum of money for a copy of “King Biscuit Time” – a real American blues import on the wonderful Arhoolie label containing the Trumpet sessions. Sonny Boy was a little younger then and he sounds more enthusiastic, even eager to please. The harmonica is unamplified which limits Sonny Boy’s dynamic range and forces him to over-use his hand-cupping wah-wah effect. Despite their R’n’B and jump band pedigrees, the accompanying musicians sound more down-home log-cabin country shack than the impeccable Chicago Chess house band but, so what? They’re not as good. They make Sonny Boy work too hard. I’m glad I got the album, it’s a great blues record, but for prime time Sonny Boy I’ll stick with the Chess Box. 

Take, for example, “Checking Up On My Baby”. The first eight beats alone contain enough natural magic to galvanize any halfway sensate person’s stomach muscles. Sonny Boy’s studio band had been recording together for nearly five years when the track was cut in April of 1960 and the intuitive empathy between the musicians was at an absolute peak. Sonny Boy’s unique method of leaning on a beat – playing fractionally behind it or ahead of it, as he saw fit – is here brought to such a degree of rhythmic subtlety that even the very first beat of his harmonica intro is staggered. Anticipating this, drummer Fred Below responds by barnstorming in with the first drumbeat placed dead centre, thereby creating an overwhelmingly compulsive swing. Robert Jr Lockwood and Luther Tucker’s guitars, Otis Spann’s piano and Willie Dixon’s bass all tumble in behind the drums, each with their own interlocking groove and, way over the top, Sonny Boy plays only his meanest, toughest harmonica – his sparse lines cutting through the rhythmic undergrowth like a master Samurai swordsman in a temper. At the end of the first chorus, the rhythm guitar comes to a dead stop on a bruised and battered 7th, and starts up again immediately as Sonny Boy sings:

“I’m checkin’ up on my baby,
Find out what she puttin’ down”

his voice nothing but a growl of guttural discontent and paranoid suspicion. The rhythmic tension is rigidly maintained for two choruses before the drummer allows some relief by playing broken triplets across the turnaround. Robert Jr Lockwood’s lead guitar echoes, anticipates and complements Sonny Boy’s harmonica solo – itself a flawless model of razor-edge economy, every note honed to such a fine point. 

“Well I wouldn’t call home,
No I wouldn’t even write,
I caught me a plane,
Flew back the same night,
Checkin’ up on my baby…”

By the time “Checkin’ On My Baby” was recorded, Sonny Boy was old. He was a near toothless, drunken, belligerent old black man from Mississippi who had been a restless, poverty stricken vagabond virtually the whole of his life. He had also been one of the greatest American artists of the 20th century. Original and truthful in his art always, what did he have to prove? Nothing. You can hear his attitude perfectly expressed in the famous studio argument with Leonard Chess over the title of “Little Village”:

L.C: What’s the name of this?
S.B.W: Little Village. Little Village, motherfucker! Little Village!
L.C: There ain’t a motherfucking thing there in the song about a village, you son of a bitch!
S.B.W: Well a small town.
L.C: I know what a village is!
S.B.W: Well all right, Goddammit! I ain’t got nothin’ to do with it, son of a bitch, you can name it “Yo Mammy” if you wanna.

Towards the end, despite the odd flashes of brilliance, it was obvious that, on a day-to-day level at least, Sonny Boy had lost it. But there are one or two engrossing curios from the end period. One is an album recorded in Copenhagen in 1963 and originally issued on Storyville. For a lot of this record Sonny Boy plays entirely unaccompanied, as he would have done on any number of street corners throughout the South in his youth, and it is fascinating to follow his eccentric, unpredictable train of musical thought. On that same Danish trip we can hear him, drunk and ebullient, jamming with Rahsaan Roland Kirk in a little club in Copenhagen, calling himself “Big Skol” and plucking a wild blues out of thin air recorded for posterity as “The Monkey Thing”. Then nearly two years later in 1965 there is the well-intentioned but fairly disastrous attempt by Giorgio Gomelsky (The Yardbirds manager at the time) to team Sonny Boy up with a jazz rhythm section – with a very young Jimmy Page along for the ride. It’s a hopeless failure but it’s worth a chuckle to hear these slick jazzers from the heart of Swinging London trying to follow what was left of Sonny Boy. He died within weeks of the session and he went home specifically for the purpose. “We’re like elephants”, he is reported to have said, “we knows”. His last recording was made for the King Biscuit Flour radio show he had played regularly for many years prior to his European adventures. The story goes that none of his friends and contemporaries believed he had ever really been away. 

So what is left of Sonny Boy Williamson? A name that he stole from a younger musician (who had been murdered in 1947. Sonny Boy didn’t use the name while John Lee Williamson was alive)? An image of a bowler hat and a goatee beard – a tall, stooping, suspicious black man dressed in a harlequin business suit like a psychedelic stockbroker? What’s left, of course, are the recordings. They get cheaper and cheaper every year but don’t let that fool you. Cuts like “Born Blind”, “Like Wolf”, “Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide” may keep getting reissued and reissued on cheaper and cheaper foreign pirate cd’s but that doesn’t for one moment stop them from being the stuff. But far better to get the Chess Box, with all the out-takes and the hilariously obscene studio backchat. Get it, play it loud and play it all. Walk into walls smiling. Sonny Boy lives.

©Adam Blake. London


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