Sonny Boy Williamson II

Bye Bye Sonny

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If legend grows out of mystery, then Rice Miller could be its poster boy, since even his name is an uncertainty (he was most likely born as Alec or Alex Miller), and given that he assumed the name of another harmonica player, thus becoming the second Sonny Boy Williamson, he seemed to approach life like it was a hall of mirrors. What keeps him from being a completely self-invented illusion is that he was a remarkable musician, and the music he recorded is as solid as bedrock, an impressive counterweight to the vague and watery details that pass for his personal biography. Like the first Williamson, he was a harmonica player, but he really sounded nothing like his adopted namesake, favoring a light, soaring, almost horn-like sound on the instrument. He was also a natural songwriter, and his blues-based compositions show a sharp attention to detail unusual in a genre built largely on cliché and a handful of repeated patterns. He was also a larger than life showman, and he knew a good thing when he ran into it, so when he participated in the American Folk & Blues Festival package in Europe in 1963 and saw the enthusiastic reception afforded old American bluesmen there, he decided to stick around for awhile and ended up fronting numerous gigs with various young white British blues bands, each of which he charmed, confused and schooled. As providence would have it, a fair amount of these gigs were caught on tape, including the two sets with the Yardbirds (December 1963 at the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond and February 1964 at the Birmingham Town Hall in Birmingham), and a set with the Animals (December 1963 at the Club A Go-Go in Newcastle) that are collected on the first disc of this two-disc set. Truthfully, these live shows are more historically interesting than anything else, being merely passable bar band blues, even if they feature a fascinatingly charismatic if rather drunken Williamson at the helm. The second disc here consists of a studio session Williamson did with Jimmy Page and Brian Auger in January of 1965, and thanks to the presence of Alan Skidmore and Joe Harriott on tenor and alto saxophone respectively, the whole affair has an edgy and jazzy jump blues feel that allows Williamson to stretch out a bit from the strict blues format. As fate would have it, the Page/Auger session was to be the last chapter in Williamson's recorded legacy, as the harpist died four months later in Helena, Arkansas. All of the tracks on these two discs have been released several times under various titles and on assorted labels, and aside from the experimental freshness of the Page/Auger material, it all amounts to historical ephemera, probably essential only for dedicated collectors. As the last chapter in the murky, mythical and fascinating career of one Rice Miller, though, these recordings are worth their weight in gold.

Track Listing - Disc 1

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
1 3:40
2 3:56
3 5:21
4 5:07
6 5:43
7 3:00
8 2:59
9 1:02
10 3:21
11 3:35
blue highlight denotes track pick