‘I’ll Tell Everything I Know . . .’

Originally posted October 14, 2008

In 1993, when MCA released the double-CD package, The Essential Sonny Boy Williamson, writer Mark Humphrey began his lengthy assessment of Williamson’s life this way:

“He was a biographer’s nightmare. If we would know a man by his name, he offered several: Sonny Boy Williamson and Rice Miller were the most prominent, but others crop up (Willie Williams, Willie Miller, Aleck Miller). Then there were his nicknames: Little Boy Blue (he cut a dashing figure in the Delta with his belt of Hohner harmonica ‘horns’), the Goat (if you’ve seen a late photo of him with his goatee and leer, it’s self-explanatory), and Footsie (he reportedly carved slits in his boots to literally cool his heels). Disdainful of interviewers, he gave grudging and usually contradictory accounts of his life. (‘Ah, hell, it ain’t none of their business,’ he told Willie Dixon. ‘They don’t even know me.’)”

Generally called Sonny Boy Williamson II these days, the musician was, most researchers have concluded, born as either Rice Miller or Aleck Miller. (His grave marker in the Mississippi Delta reads “Aleck Miller, better known as Willie ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson.”) His identification as Sonny Boy Williamson was the result of a brazen bit of mid-twentieth century identity theft. The true Sonny Boy Williamson was named John Lee Williamson and was born in Tennessee and spent his brief musical career in Chicago before dying in 1948 after being attacked in a Chicago street. Before his death, however, Williamson was well-enough known among blues fans as Sonny Boy that it was to Miller’s advantage – as he played in Mississippi and Arkansas – to claim to be Sonny Boy. Some sources claim Williamson was incensed at the appropriation of his name; others I’ve read say he was amused.

Either way, over the years since, the counterfeit Sonny Boy has eclipsed the original Sonny Boy with the depth of his talent and his catalog, recorded wherever he happened to wander, though the records that are at the center of his catalog were done in Chicago on the Chess and Checker labels and are widely available. (John Lee Williamson’s music, on the other hand, seems a little harder to find. A collection of twenty-five tracks released on the Bluebird label from 1937 through 1947 was packaged in 2003 as Blue Bird Blues; it was one of the eleven CDs in the series When The Sun Goes Down: The Secret History of Rock & Roll, and it – like the entire series – is worth checking out.)

Although Sonny Boy II occasionally recorded songs written by Chess savant Willie Dixon, the vast majority of his work came from his own pen. And as happens with the catalog of many blues artists, many of Sonny Boy Williamson’s songs have become blues and blues-rock standards: The songs “Bye Bye Bird,” “Checkin’ Up On My Baby,” “Dissatisfied,” “Elevate Me Mama” and “Eyesight to the Blind,” all recorded by a good number of other artists, come up in a scan of just the first few pages of Williamson’s catalog, as listed at All-Music Guide.

The song that tugs on my ears, though, is “Don’t Start Me To Talkin’,” which Williamson recorded as Checker 824 in August of 1955. From the sly vocal through the sassy harp work, it’s a wondrous bluesy performance, backed by superb musicians. (The backing band on the track was made up of Otis Spann on piano, Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers on guitar, Willie Dixon on bass and Fred Below on drums.)

It’s also been covered by a number of performers, both as “Don’t Start Me To Talkin’” and “Don’t Start Me To Talking.” Among the performers who’ve recorded the song under either title are Little Joe Blue, Grady Champion, James Cotton, the Dirty Blues Band, Rory Gallagher, Mick Jagger, Etta James, Monty McClinton, Keb’ Mo’, Gary Moore, Kenny Neal, Paul Orta, Ronny Ray, Fenton Robinson, Little Mack Simmons, the Doc Thomas Group, Johnny Turner, Randy Volin. Muddy Waters, Alex “Spiderman” White and Arthur Williams.

About two-thirds of those names are familiar to me, and I’ve heard maybe about one-third of the versions of “Don’t Start Me To Talkin’” represented by that list. But the group whose name I pulled from the list might be the most surprising of them all: The Doobie Brothers.

The Doobies included “Don’t Start Me To Talkin’” on Toulouse Street, the 1972 album that was their breakthrough record, with “Listen to the Music” (No. 11), “Jesus Is Just All Right” (No. 35) and “Rockin’ Down the Highway” (The B Side of “Jesus”). “Don’t Start Me To Talkin’” was one of two covers on the album (Seals & Crofts’ “Cotton Mouth” was the other). The Doobies did a pretty good job on the song, making kind of a blue-rock romp out of it and getting some help in doing so from the horn work by Sherman Marshall Cyr, Joe Lane Davis, Jon Smith and Jerry Jumonville (as listed at All-Music Guide).

I like the Doobies’ cover better than many other covers I’ve heard. But I tend to think that Sonny Boy’s sly reading is still the best. Judge for yourself.

“Don’t Start Me To Talkin’” by Sonny Boy Williamson II [1955]

“Don’t Start Me To Talkin’” by the Doobie Brothers [1972]

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