“You might say that the universe plays the blues.” ― David Byrne
November 11, 2020 Volume 1, Issue 27
In this issue: Columns by Marty Weil, Joanna Conor; “Photo of the Week” by Peter M. Hurley, and “No Border Blues” podast, and the gift of music.
“The Saga of the Sonny Boys” by Marty Weil @ChiBluesHistory
John Lee Curtis (John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson) (left) and Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson II) (right)
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
Marty Weil is the editor of@CHIBLUESHISTORYon Twitter. Marty is a blues researcher, educator, and social media influencer.
Photo of the Week: “Mud” Morganfield by Peter M. Hurley
“Mud” Morganfield… Deep into it. A voice steeped in Chicago mud with a dusting of ancestral Mississippi dirt. His face, a map of emotion and experience. He wears his family name with pride and style and writes originals to carry his own. This photo was taken at a House Of Blues benefit performance in 2018. Within an all-star lineup, Mud shone. – Peter M. Hurley
A new photo of Morganfield appears in the Trading 4s 2021 Calendar which will be available for purchase before Thanksgiving.
Mr. Hurley is a contributing photographer and writer for Living Blues Magazine and the staff photographer for Chicago Blues Network. His recent book Blues Legacy: Tradition and Innovation in Chicago, in collaboration with Blues historian and author David Whiteis, showcases his work in the field. His passion for blues music began with the Chess Studios’ sound of Bo Diddley and continues to this day. pmh1951.wixsite.com/blueportraits
“Heart of the Blues” by Joanna Connor
Joanna Connor is a weekly contributor to bBluesNote with her column “Heart of the Blues.” Joannais a Guitar Instructor with At Home Chicago Blues. To learn more about Joanna visit her website or watch her videos. To take lessons with Joanna, click here.
In my last article I reminisced about my first night of sitting in with the luminary Lonnie Brooks.
After my three song jam with Dion and Band, Delta BluesMan Johnny Littlejohn, who was in the audience, offered me a gig at Blues that would take place three weeks later. We exchanged phone numbers.
I went outside covered in sweat from the set, gleaming on the outside and inside, not noticing the frigid temperature on that October night. I ended up at Cook County Hospital a few days later with a raging fever and the inability to swallow and had the diagnosis of tonsillitis. Penicillin would wipe it out within the week. Fortunately I went to the Jazz Record Mart and bought the one Johnny Littlejohn album I could find the day after I met him. I spent the week in recovery learning every cut on the album.
We met a week later at a soul food restaurant on Pulaski Rd for breakfast. I had no car and lived at the corner of Irving park and Pulaski. I had asked people and eventually the bus driver if I was headed in the right direction, and each of them said “You don’t want to go in that neighborhood!” I was undaunted. I was going to have breakfast with a living legend and one of the few blues men in Chicago that played real Mississippi Delta Slide guitar. Over a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, fried potatoes and grits, Johnny explained his show to me.
His accent was so thick this New England transplant pieced together what he was saying as best I could. The night of the show I took two buses to Blues lugging a 1964 Fender black face twin loaded with two JBL, and my Les Paul in a hard shell case in either hand from my third floor apartment. It didn’t bother me at all. I was ecstatic. I walked into the club the air heavy and smoky, my heart pounding with anticipation.
Here I was, 22 years old and I was to be playing with three men old enough to each be my grandfather, each masters of their genre.
I don’t recall every minute of that night, other than Johnny telling me he was impressed I had learned that album, and me trying to figure out what he was shouting out as song titles, as there was no set list and his Mississippi accent might has well has been Japanese to my ears! What an honor to be on this stage with the deepest of blues being played by veterans of the this music, straight from their lives, straight from their souls. My blues education had begun!
Until next time !
Listen to a song by John Littlejohn here:
John Littlejohn – “Driftin’ Blues”
“No Border Blues” Podcast with Johnny Burgin and Stephanie Tice
Take a blues journey with No Border Blues! Delmark recording artist Johnny Burgin and producer Stephanie Tice are happy to present exclusive musical performances and intriguing cross-cultural exchanges with some artists you should know about. In this episode, meet UK artists Katie Bradley and Dave Ferra.
No Border Blues Episode 4, Katie Bradley and Dave Ferra from the UK
Read about the podcast in the hyperlocal news source, “The Beachwood Reporter” and learn more about this incredible show. Read it here.
Give the Gift of Music For yourself…or for a musician you know. At Home Chicago Blues offers convenient online video lessons you can access anytime,
plus Q&A with Chicago Blues Masters.
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