Posts Tagged ‘Sonny Boy Williamson II’

‘I’ll Tell Everything I Know . . .’

August 24, 2011

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]

Koko, The Wolf & Sonny Boy II

July 25, 2011

Originally posted July 31, 2008

Here’s one video of a song from yesterday’s Baker’s Dozen and a couple more that I found while rummaging in the corners at YouTube.

First. here’s Koko Taylor doing “Wang Dang Doodle” in 1967. As the heading says, that in fact is Little Walter on harp.

Not far away, as these things go, I found a 1964 performance of “Smokestack Lightning” by Howlin’ Wolf, whom I referenced in yesterday’s post. (Keep your eyes open for a look at Willie Dixon on the upright bass.)*

And one more look into the corner finds Sonny Boy Williamson II doing a sweet and nasty version of “In My Younger Days.” There’s no date on the clip, but Williamson recorded the song for Chess in 1963 and died in 1965.

*While I believe this is the same performance to which I linked when this post first went up, the video at YouTube is a new one, and it provides more information, most notably that the performance took place in England and that as well as featuring Willie Dixon, the video also includes Hubert Sumlin, the Wolf’s long-time guitarist. Note added July 25, 2011. 

A Baker’s Dozen from 1960

April 29, 2011

Originally posted July 25, 2007

Not long after I rose this morning, at about seven o’clock, someone in Clichy, France, a city of about 60,000 on the northwest edge of Paris, clicked on this blog. It was about one o’clock in the afternoon in Clichy, so it might have been someone just finishing lunch. I’ll never know.

But when that unknown resident of France clicked on the blog, it turned the counter here to 50,000. And I’d like to thank him or her as well as all of you who stop by here. I started the blog on a whim, creating a place to share music I love, and I am gratified that so many people out there – from Clichy, France, and Klagenfurt, Austria, to Yamagata, Japan, and Karachi, Pakistan, and on to Warwick, Rhode Island. and Madison, Wisconsin – seem to enjoy the same music I do and seem to enjoy reading my tales.

I’d like to thank all of you who stop by. Obviously, I know who only a very few of you are, but that’s fine. It really is enough to know that the music I love and the tales I tell are circling the world.

But I thought something a little more might be in order for that unknown resident of France. No, I’m not going to lapse into French here. (Years ago, my high school French served me fairly well during five days in Paris. Well, it did except for the time in a restaurant when the waiter asked if we wanted dessert and I told him we were going to die. Nous sommes fini, I told him, saying, “We are finished,” instead of the appropriate “We have finished.” His eyes got quite wide for a moment.) Rather, I thought I would find my favorite song in French – of the maybe fifty I have – as a start to a Baker’s Dozen. I hope my unknown visitor from Clichy likes the song as much as I do.

A Baker’s Dozen from 1960

“Je Ne Regrette Rien” by Edith Piaf, recorded in Paris November 10.

“Bye Bye Johnny” by Chuck Berry, Chess single 1754

“Late Last Night” by Slim Harpo, Excello single 2171

“Ruby Baby” by Ronnie Hawkins, Roulette single 4249

“Sleepless Nights” by the Everly Brothers from It’s Everly Time

“I’ve Got My Mojo Working, Part 2” by Muddy Waters from Muddy Waters at Newport

“Lonesome Cabin” by Sonny Boy Williamson II, Checker single 956

“The Magnificent Seven” by Elmer Bernstein from The Magnificent Seven soundtrack

“Close To You” by Bobby “Blue” Bland, Duke single 322

“Bye Bye Baby” by Mary Wells, Motown single 1003

“Greenfields” by the Brothers Four, Columbia single 41571

“Spoonful” by Howlin’ Wolf, Chess single 1762

“North to Alaska” by Johnny Horton, Columbia single 41782

With a very few exceptions, I tend to dislike most of the music that ruled the Top 40 charts during the early 1960s, and the list here reflects that. Of the thirteen acts in the above list, only two – as far as I can tell; I may have missed something — reached the Top 40 during 1960: The Brothers Four’s version of “Greenfields” was No. 2 for four weeks in the spring, and Johnny Horton’s “North to Alaska” reached No. 4 in the autumn.

A few comments about some of the songs:

The Edith Piaf performance was evidently released several times not long after it was recorded, and my uncertain reading of Ebay’s French site indicates that the EP releases came about in 1961. But the notes for Éternelle, the Piaf compilation I have, say the song was recorded in 1960, so we’ll call it a 1960 song.

Ronnie Hawkins’ performance of “Ruby Baby” may be backed by at least some of the Hawks who went on to become The Band. The time is right, generally, and I swear I hear Richard Manuel’s voice among the background singers.

“I’ve Got My Mojo Working, Part 2” comes from the July 1960 appearance by Muddy Waters and his band at the Newport Jazz Festival. A four-minute performance of “I’ve Got My Mojo Working” was so well received that after the song ended, Muddy and the band went back into it, creating the version heard here. Most blues fans think that Waters’ performance at Newport – available on a remastered CD – was among the finest of his long career.

For those of my vintage, who recall when there were commercials for cigarettes on television, Elmer Bernstein’s main theme for The Magnificent Seven conjures visions of rugged cowboys herding cattle through valleys surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The song was for much of the 1960s used in commercials for Marlboro cigarettes, and its genesis as the stirring theme of an iconic western movie was, alas, lost. From what I can tell, the theme wasn’t released as a single in the U.S. although there was a single released in the United Kingdom.

“North to Alaska” was one of the historical songs that Johnny Horton seemed to specialize in. He’d reached No. 1 for six weeks a year earlier with “The Battle of New Orleans.” (“We fired our guns and the British kept a-comin’. There wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago.”) And in the spring of 1960, his song “Sink the Bismarck,” inspired by – but not formally connected with – the identically titled film, went to No. 3.

Another One Found In The Stacks

April 18, 2011

Originally posted April 6, 2007

It was all because of Bertie Higgins.

The RealPlayer was rolling on random the other night while I played some tabletop baseball (another one of my passions, which I refer to at times on my other blog, the horribly neglected Whiteray’s Musings). Along came Bertie Higgins and his 1982 hit, “Key Largo.” But the introduction sounded off. So I played it again.

And it was off. I’m not at all sure where I got the mp3 of the song, but it was missing the first three notes. So I finished the game I was playing and headed for the stacks, planning to pull Higgins’ LP out and fire up the ION USB turntable. The records in the H section went from “Hiatt, John” to “High Cotton.” No “Higgins, Bertie.”

I stood there rubbing my beard for a moment, certain that I owned a copy of Higgins’ album, Just Another Day in Paradise. I could see the cover in my mind. So I went to a couple of crates where I keep LPs I’ve logged but have not yet played. Some Steve Forbert and Lamont Cranston. A collection of Russian folk songs. Amy Grant. Frank Sinatra. Chilliwack. Some musicals and classical. A Ronco disco collection. Lots of other stuff.

But no Bertie Higgins.

Utterly confused, I went to the computer and pulled up the LP Log. No listing for “Higgins, Bertie.” Despite my certainty, I don’t own the album. So I took a deep breath and looked at the three-foot long shelf that contains my various anthologies, including a lot of Ronco and K-Tel products. I don’t have them indexed by song. If I had “Key Largo” on one of them, I would have to find it by pulling each record out and scanning first for dates of 1982 or later and then for the individual title.

Were the first three notes of the introduction really that important to me?

Well, yes. So I began pulling records off the shelf. About twenty minutes later, I found a record called If We Knew Then . . . produced in 1986 to, oddly enough, promote a drug to reduce high blood pressure. It first side – the “Then” side – had five songs from the 1950s: Vic Damone’s “On The Street Where You Live” and Doris Day’s “Secret Love” among them. Side Two, the “Now” side, had, among its five songs, “Key Largo.”

Ten minutes later, I had an mp3 with those three notes whose absence had annoyed me an hour earlier. And I began to dig through the other collections to see what other single cuts I could find that I might want to add to the mp3 collection. And I pulled out a record titled Rock Generation, Vol. 5, subtitled “The First Rhythm & Blues Festival in England (Birmingham Town Hall, 28th February 1964).”

I stared at it and at the list of performers: Spencer Davies, spelled just like that. Long John Baldry. Rod Stewart. Stevie Winwood. Eric Clapton. Sonny Boy Williamson.

When did I get this? I turned it over. “February 25, 1999,” said the date. The location was clear from the price tag on the front: Cheapo’s, on Lake Street in South Minneapolis.

Back at the computer, I opened a new file for recording, cleaned the record and put it on the ION. As it played, I looked over the cover, noting that it was released (evidently in 1965) on the French BYG label with liner notes by one Giorgio Gomelsky. I listened closely. Not bad. Except for the fact that Steve Winwood’s mike failed during the first cut by the Spencer Davies R&B Quartet (as the group was billed), the recording was pretty good.

And clearly, even if the recording were mediocre, its historical import is large enough to excuse some audio flaws. What a lineup! And how was it I didn’t know I had this? Had I been distracted that day, looking forward to listening to some other LP I’d found that day in pristine condition? (Looking at the LP Log, if other acquisitions distracted me that day, it was likely the two Al Green LPs. Other buys that day were LPs by Roy Buchanan, Donovan, Buddy Guy, T-Bone Burnett, Graham Central Station and Otis Rush. A pretty good haul for one day!)

The first side ended. I paused the recording, cleaned Side Two and started it and the recorder again, and I tried to figure out how I could have slid this treasure in with the Roncos. I try to separate the anthologies to some degree on that shelf, with the more valuable ones – in terms of rarity of content – clustered together at one end. As Sonny Boy blew his harp in front of the Yardbirds, all I could figure out was that on that Thursday evening in 1999, I just hadn’t been paying attention.

Then I realized I likely didn’t play any of those records on that day. Back then, when I lived in Minneapolis, Thursday evening was band practice, a weekly get-together with friends for the sake of the music and camaraderie. I’d no doubt grabbed the records during a quick stop on my way home from work and then headed off to practice.

But as Sonny Boy closed his set with a solo turn on “Bye-Bye Bird” and all the performers began a long version of “Got My Mojo Working,” I realized that I still had no idea why I’d seemingly not realized the value of the record when I got it. Well, sometimes, I guess, I’m just asleep at the switch. And I evidently played the record and shoved in between the Roncos without thinking.

Posting the record here should rectify that poor decision of eight years ago. Most of the performers on the record are well known, though some of the group memberships changed between the time of this recording in February 1964 and the time the groups became more well known to music fans in general and certainly to those on the American side of the big pond.

Spencer Davies R&B Quartet was made of, at the time, Davies himself, of course, on guitar; Stevie Winwood on guitar, vocals and organ; Muff Winwood on bass; and Peter York on drums.

Long John Baldry and the Hoochie Coochie Men were: Baldry on vocals; Rod Stewart on vocals; Jeff Bradford on lead guitar; Cliff Barton on bass; Ian Armit on piano; and Billy Law on drums.

The Yardbirds were: Eric Clapton on lead guitar; Paul Samwell-Smith on bass; Chris Dreja on rhythm guitar; and Jim McCarty on drums.

The members of the Liverpool Roadrunners were not listed on the back of the record. Their current website is here.

The track listing is:

“Dimples” by the Spencer Davies R&B Quartet
“You Gonna Make It If You Try” by the Liverpool Roadrunners
“Mary Ann” by the Liverpool Roadrunners
“Bright Lights Big City” by Rod Stewart
“The Two Nineteen” by Long John Baldry
“Night Time Is The Right Time” by the Spencer Davies R&B Quartet
“Slows Walk” by Sonny Boy Williamson and the Yardbirds
“Highway 69” by Sonny Boy Williamson and the Yardbirds
“My Little Cabin” by Sonny Boy Williamson and the Yardbirds
“Bye-Bye Bird” by Sonny Boy Williamson
“Got My Mojo Working” [listed simply as “Mojo”] by everyone.

All-Music Guide indicates that the album was released on CD in 2000 on the Spalax label. GEMM has a couple of listings for the CD through U.S.-based shops that specialize in imports, with prices ranging right around $25. Several copies of the LP are listed there as well, with prices as low as about $5 and as high as $90, with most of the copies being priced between $10 and $30.

Rock Generation, Vol. 5 [1965]

A Baker’s Dozen from the 1950s

April 17, 2011

Originally posted March 1, 2007

I’ve got a nice piece coming up for you tomorrow – a 1974 solo album by Toni Brown, one of the founders of the Berkeley-based Joy Of Cooking that Brown fronted with Teri Garthwaite in the early 1970s. But it’s not quite ready yet (and I need to be run a few errands this morning in advance of the snowstorm that’s supposed to set in before noon today), so I thought I’d throw out another random list.

This one, however, will be decade-specific: A baker’s dozen from the 1950s:

“Cat Called Domino” by Roy Orbison, unreleased Sun recording, 1956.

“Pearlee Blues” by Furry Lewis from Furry Lewis Blues, 1959.

“Somebody In My Home” by Howlin’ Wolf, Chess 1668, 1957.

“Playin’ Myself The Blues” by Cecil Gant, Decca 48231, 1950.

“I Don’t Know” by Sonny Boy Williamson II, Checker 864, 1957.

“Joliet Blues” by Johnny Shines, Chess 1443, 1950.

“Don’t Happen No More” by Young Jessie, Modern 1002, 1956.

“Lost Lover Blues” by Bobby “Blue” Bland, Duke session, 1955.

“Bird Dog” by the Everly Brothers, Cadence 1350, 1958.

“Can’t We Be Friends” by Frank Sinatra from In The Wee Small Hours, 1955.

“That’s All Right” by Elvis Presley, Sun 209, 1954.

“Prisoner’s Song” by Warren Storm, Nasco 6015, 1958.

“Shake, Rattle & Roll” by Big Joe Turner, Atlantic 1026, 1954.

Hope you enjoy these, and we’ll head into 1970s singer-songwriter territory tomorrow!