Sonny Boy’s Blues: The story behind the great blues song recorded in Aurora
By Matt Hanley firstname.lastname@example.org June 8, 2012 8:11PM
Sonny Boy Williamson. | Photo by T.W. Utley~Courtesy University of Mississippi Archives
Blues on the Fox
Among the musicians playing at next weekend’s Blues on the Fox festival will be Billy Boy Arnold, the 76-year-old harmonica player who got his first lessons from Sonny Boy Williamson. Arnold went on to team with Bo Diddley and record solo classics like “I Wish You Would”.
Arnold will be among five musicians playing as part of “Chicago Blues: A Living History.” Starting at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Arnold, John Primer, Billy Branch, Lurrie Bell and Carlos Johnson will take listeners through a history of Chicago blues. In 2009, the group received a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Blues Album.
Blues on the Fox runs Friday and Saturday. Blues guitarist Kenny Wayne Sheperd will be the headliner on Friday. The Nevilles — billed as New Orleans’ first family of funk — will headline the Saturday show. Art, Cyril and Charles Neville combine blues, jazz and funk in the family band. (Brother Aaron Neville will not be part of the Aurora show.)
The festival will be at North River Street Park, at New York and River streets in downtown Aurora, just west of the Hollywood Casino. Admission for either day of Blues on the Fox is $5. There will be no advance sales; all tickets can be purchased at the gate. For information, go to www.bluesonthefox.com or call 630-896-6666.
Updated: July 11, 2012 6:02AM
Since it opened in 1928, the Leland Hotel has been the centerpiece of Aurora’s skyline. The crown atop the downtown skyscraper was the 19th floor ballroom. The walls were red, green and black. The ceiling was painted like the night sky, with each wrought-iron light fixture representing a different star or planet. Through the arched windows, visitors could see to the end of the horizon.
But on May 5, 1937 — the most important day in the Leland’s history — the view was uninspiring. It had rained for so long, Aurora pastors held special sessions asking God to give it a rest.
The foul weather didn’t matter much to the three musicians who’d set up a temporary recording studio in the empty ballroom. They weren’t from Aurora, and most of the city had never heard of them.
If Aurorans had understood what was happening, they’d have stood in the pouring rain just to get a glimpse Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Nighthawk and Big Joe Williams leaving the Leland. They’d have bribed a doorman to listen as these men laid down 16 tracks in less than four hours. There, above the city, history was being burned in wax.
An eavesdropper wouldn’t have even had to wait very long to hear a masterpiece: it was the first song recorded. John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, a 23-year-old gambler, drinker and harmonica player got the session started. Nighthawk and Williams played guitar behind him.
Williamson was brilliant on the harmonica, an instrument he’d been playing since he was a child. Before May 5, 1937, the harmonica was background, a nice accent on the blues’ dirty vocals. It hung around with novelty instruments like kazoos, jugs and washboards.
But this day, the harmonica would be promoted to feature role.
Around 11 a.m., Williamson played the first notes of, “Good Morning, School Girl.” Behind him, a guitar provided a steady bum-dum-de-dum. Williamson let his harmonica dance for 27 seconds. Then, in his deep Southern drawl, Williamson answered:
“Hello little school girl,
“Good morning little school girl,
“Can I go home with you?
“Can I go home, with you?
“Now you can tell your mother and your father, mmm, that Sonny Boy’s a little school boy, too.”
Seventy-five years later, artists are still recording versions of that three-minute song. Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, the Grateful Dead, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison and Rod Stewart put it on their albums. The song has been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, along with the three men who played on it.
While “Good Morning, School Girl” set off a firestorm in black America, the song’s birthplace and author were obscured. It took the monumental efforts to revive the legend of Sonny Boy Williamson. By then, being murdered wasn’t even the worst thing that had happened to him.
‘All right, John’
Exactly how and why Williamson ended up in the Leland Hotel in downtown Aurora is a bit of a mystery. In 1937, RCA didn’t have a studio in Chicago, so it wasn’t uncommon to use hotels for recordings. Drop in a few chairs and a couple microphones, and you were ready to go. In fact, the day before Williamson’s set, Tampa Red and Washboard Sam had recorded 16 songs at the Leland. These men represented the first ripples in a tidal wave of black musicians headed to Chicago.
Williamson had grown up on a farm in Madison County, Tenn. At age 11, his mother bought him a harmonica for Christmas. At the time, millions of harmonicas were being sold in the United States each year. The appeal was obvious: harmonicas were cheap (about 10 cents in 1925), relatively easy to learn and even easier to carry.
By 16, Williamson was jamming with prominent blues musicians and he began to stretch the harmonica’s muscle. He started playing crossed-harp, using the draw notes – the ones played while breathing in – to widen the range of playable sounds.
By 1934, Williamson was a skilled harmonica player who could write and sing. He had grown up amid the Jim Crow laws of the South, but Williamson didn’t seem to carry the same pain as other blues musicians. His early songs are joyous celebrations of sexual yearning and drunkenness. In several songs, Williamson yells out “All right, John” before breaking into a harmonica solo, as if his harmonica self and singing self are competing. Williamson liked to drink and loved to gamble, but he was reliable enough that he attracted the attention of well known blues producer Lester Melrose, who asked him to record at the Leland.
That session — which also included standards like “Sugar Mama” and “Blue Bird Blues” — made him an icon. When Muddy Waters came to Chicago, his first gig was with Sonny Boy Williamson.
‘Come on up’
In Chicago in the late 1940s, the biggest and best place to buy black music was Rols, a huge building that covered a West Side city block. When Chicago resident William Arnold got a little money, he’d head straight for the Rols, in search of the blue label of Bluebird’s race records. For 40 cents, Arnold could take home music performed by people who understood his life. Right away, Arnold was drawn in by Williamson’s unusual, rough voice. He wore out Williamson’s records.
So you can imagine what a thrill it was when, at 12-years-old, Arnold learned that Williamson lived nearby. One day, he convinced two friends to knock on the door at 3226 S. Giles Ave. A tall, strong man answered the door.
“We’re looking for Sonny Boy Williamson,” Arnold said.
“This is Sonny Boy Williamson.”
“We want to hear you play harmonica.”
“Well, come on up.”
For more than hour, Williamson showed the boys the basics of blues harmonica and took requests from their favorite records.
“Did that sound like me?” Williamson joked after each song.
When Arnold showed up a few weeks later, Williamson invited the boy in like they were old friends. A few more weeks passed, and Arnold decided to return for a third lesson. When he arrived at Giles, Arnold asked the landlady if Sonny Boy was home.
“Hadn’t you heard?” she said. “He got killed.”
‘Lord have mercy’
At 2:30 a.m. June 1, 1948, the doorbell rang at 3226 S. Giles Ave. Lacey Belle Williamson opened the door and found her husband leaning against the wall, holding his head. His hat was missing and his clothes were dirty. He was bleeding from the mouth and had a bruise over his left eye. She asked what happened. Williamson went inside and sat on the bed.
“Lord have mercy,” was all he would say.
Investigators later determined Williamson had been playing a raucous set at the nearby Plantation Club. At 2 a.m., the owner finally stopped him by pulling him off stage. Williamson said he was heading home. The police record picks up again when he rings his doorbell. While Williamson sat on the bed, Lacey Belle started washing the blood off and again asked what happened.
“I’m dying,” he said, but offered no other details. At 5 a.m., he lost consciousness. He was dead before he ever got to the hospital.
Most likely, Williamson was jumped on his way home. His wallet, a yellow gold Bulova watch, a ring, three harmonicas and the microphone were missing. Two men were arrested. They passed lie detector tests. No one was ever charged.
At this point, the why and how of Williamson’s death are likely unknowable. Only what-ifs remain. Williamson was just beginning to experiment with electric amplification – the next evolution in blues music.
“There’s just so much missed possibilities because of his death,” said Michael Baker, a librarian who helped start the Shannon Street Blues Festival in Williamson’s home town in Tennessee. “He was just way ahead of his time. If you listen to his music chronologically, you see such growth. I don’t think there was a whole lot of people – especially in the white community – that knew Sonny Boy. And the Rice Miller thing really messed things up.”
‘The one and only’
Rice Miller was so good he could put the skinny end of the harmonica in his mouth and play with no hands. It’s undisputed that any list of the greatest blues harmonica players must include Miller. But you’ll never see his name there. Instead, you’ll see Sonny Boy Williamson II. It’s unimaginable today, but just before he became famous, Miller borrowed the name of the blues’ best-known harmonica player, then never gave it back.
The exact reasons for the deception aren’t clear, but in 1941, Miller was a brilliant musician without a record, who was offered a spot on an Arkansas radio show.
“John Lee (Williamson) has records on the juke box. If you want to sell tickets, then you’re Sonny Boy,” Baker said.
Billed as Sonny Boy Williamson, Miller was the star of the King Biscuit Hour, a hugely influential blues radio show. There’s solid anecdotal evidence the two men knew each other and, in some way, Williamson allowed Rice Miller to use the name. And by the time Williamson was killed, it was too late for Miller: he had made his name with someone else’s name. Miller began calling himself “the one and only Sonny Boy Williamson” – a misleading but, by then, accurate statement. As the years went on, the real Williamson’s friends bristled. In 1951, Arnold confronted Miller about using the name.
“All he had to say was I admired the man’s music and using his name afforded me to make a living,” said Arnold, who at 76-years-old, is now a prominent blues harmonica player who will perform at the upcoming Blues on the Fox festival in Aurora. “He really made a fool of himself.”
In the 1960s, when British acts like the Rolling Stones started recording old blues tunes, forgotten Chicago musicians were suddenly in demand. Miller, using Sonny Boy’s name, became a worldwide star, playing alongside the Yardbirds. The real Sonny Boy was fading away.
‘Romeo and Juliet on blues harmonica’
When Williamson died, his body was shipped back to Jackson, Tenn., where four sentences in the classified section announced “Colored dead”. Williamson was buried under a simple metal marker at the end of a gravel road. Three decades after he died, the Madison County, Tenn., library staff started a fundraising campaign to finally buy a headstone. On a whim, Baker called RCA to see if the company would contribute. Within days, an RCA vice president said: tell them to order a headstone and let me know how much it is.
In the 75 years since “Good Morning, School Girl” was recorded in Aurora — even as memories of Williamson faded — his song’s stature grew. How did a three-minute song recorded in an empty Fox Valley ballroom become a blues standard?
“It’s a universal theme: Guy likes girl. Girl might like guy, might not. Girl’s family definitely does not like guy,” said Baker. “That’s Romeo and Juliet with a blues harmonica.”
In most versions recorded since 1937, the singer plays up a salacious older man promising a diamond ring to a schoolgirl. But in that interpretation, some of lightness in the original is lost. Like most of Williamson’s songs, he’s singing about a real heartbreak.
“I used to have a sweet little girl, you know, her name Estelle. We used to go to school together. … Grew up together, in other words. I wanted to love her and ask her mother for her and, why, she turned me down and that caused me to sing the blues,” Williamson said in 1946. “Her parents thought I wasn’t the right boy for her, you understand, and wouldn’t make her happy and everything. So they turned me down. And just got to sitting down and thinking, you understand? And then I thought of a song and I started drinking. And then I started to sing it.”
It’s a mistake to dismiss it as a teenage love song, since the story is hung on a surprisingly complicated structure.
Probably 98 percent of blues music is 8-, 12-, or 16-bar blues. It’s a sound that hits the ear naturally. But Williamson did something a bit different in “Good Morning, School Girl”. As he hit the last two words of “Can I go home with you?”, he takes a song headed for a standard 12-bar composition and drops back two beats into a swift, sweet riff.
Adam Gussow, a blues musician and professor at the University of Mississippi, says it’s a one-of-a-kind song: a 9-1/2 bar blues song.
“It makes the listener thinks it’s one kind of blues and it switches,” he said. “It feels organic, but it’s unique.”
“Before ‘Good Morning, School Girl’, nobody played the harmonica with any popularity on records,” Arnold said. “‘Good Morning, School Girl’ brought another voice to the blues.”
On a rainy day in Aurora, Sonny Boy Williamson made sure the harmonica would never be just a child’s toy.
“I don’t think you could do that with a kazoo. I don’t think I want to hear that,” Baker said. “Pretty much anyone who does blues on the (harmonica) owes a debt to Sonny Boy,” Baker said.