Personalities | Sonny Boy Williamson | Thirties | Jazz & Blues

(Harmonica, vocals, 1914–48)

John Lee Williamson was born in Jackson, Tennessee. He taught himself harmonica at an early age and left home in his mid-teens to hobo with Yank Rachell and Sleepy John Estes through Tennessee and Arkansas. He settled in Chicago in 1934 and made his recording debut for Bluebird in 1937. His first song, ‘Good Morning Little School Girl’, became a blues standard.

Williamson was friendly with Big Bill Broonzy and frequently worked Chicago clubs with him. During the years 1939–45 he worked Chicago’s Maxwell Street for tips, but in 1947 his record ‘Shake The Boogie’ became a number-four hit on the Race charts. Williamson was the most gifted and influential harmonica stylist of the pre-war era and was very much in demand to play on recordings by other artists. He was murdered coming home from a job in 1948, after which his name and reputation were taken on by harmonica player Rice Miller – or ‘Sonny Boy Williamson II’, as he became known.

Styles & Forms | Thirties | Jazz & Blues
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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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