By Marty Weil
Randy Newman had a soft spot for Sonny Boy Williamson (John Lee Curtis) whose identity and his act were usurped by another talented bluesman named Rice Miller. Rice Miller christened himself Sonny Boy Williamson much to the chagrin of the original Sonny Boy. To distinguish the two Sonny Boy Williamsons, Rice Miller is referred to as Sonny Boy Williamson II (SBWII) and Curtis as SBWI.
In the lyrics to “Sonny Boy”, Newman takes up the cause of the original Sonny Boy’s plight after SBWII stole his career from under him:
I’m gonna tell you my story
About a man who’s down in hell
He ain’t up here anyway
As far as I can tell
This man stole my name
He stole my soul
In 1941, Rice Miller was hired to play the King Biscuit Time show, advertising the King Biscuit brand of baking flour on radio station KFFA in Helena, Arkansas, with Robert Jr. Lockwood. The program’s sponsor, Max Moore, began billing Miller as Sonny Boy Williamson, in an attempt to capitalize on the fame of the established Chicago-based harmonica player and singer SBWI. Although John Lee Curtis was a major blues star who had already released dozens of successful and widely influential records under the name “Sonny Boy Williamson” from 1937 onward, Rice Miller would later claim to have been the first to use the name. Some blues scholars believe that Miller’s assertion he was born in 1899 was a ruse to convince audiences he was old enough to have used the name before John Lee Williamson, who was born in 1914. The best description of SBWII comes from the authors of Moanin’ at Midnight, “He was the trickster figure of folklore made flesh–Bre’r Rabbit in human form.” Randy Newman would wholeheartedly agree.
Randy Newman “Sonny Boy” https://youtu.be/RR8BBJz416Q
Marty Weil is the editor of @CHIBLUESHISTORY on Twitter. Marty is a blues researcher, educator, and social media influencer.