Amongst the detritus of my youth is a vinyl LP “Sonny Boy Williamson & the Yardbirds.” The album was released in 1966, to capitalize on the growing fame of the British group. It is a recording of a 1963 concert with the Yardbirds backing U.S. blues artist Sonny Boy Williamson. Eighteen-year-old guitar novice Eric Clapton is in the band. The Yardbirds are remembered as a training program for rock guitar wizards. Jeff Beck replaced Clapton and Jimmy Page replaced Beck. (Page achieved greater fame with Led Zeppelin, the band that set the standard for rock ‘n’ roll debauchery.)
Sonny Boy Williamson was born in Mississippi in 1899… or 1909… or maybe 1897. His given name was Aleck… or Alex… or Rice – which might have been a nickname – Miller… or Ford. In the 1930s he was traveling the Delta, performing under the name Little Boy Blue. In the 1940s he became a star on the King Biscuit Time radio show. The sponsor felt they could sell more King Biscuit Flour if their star had a better-known name. Rice Miller took the persona of the late blues singer and harmonica virtuoso Sonny Boy Williamson. There was no Facebook or Twitter to tell radio listeners of the ruse.
John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, born in Tennessee in 1914, was younger than his impersonator. He learned his trade in the Delta before moving north to Chicago. His RCA recordings and live performances were hugely influential in the Chicago blues scene and beyond. Muddy Waters and Little Walter were among his acolytes. In 1948, walking home after a performance in Chicago, Williamson was shot to death in a robbery. Rice Miller soon was claiming to be “the original Sonny Boy.”
Which brings us to Randy Newman. Many know Newman as the composer of musical soundtracks for “Toy Story” and other motion pictures. He is also the creator of acerbic and often misinterpreted songs satirizing prejudice (“Sail Away”, “Rednecks”, “Short People”), self-absorbed yuppies (“I Love L.A.”), and nuclear holocaust (“Political Science”) among other topics. He can also convey heart-breaking empathy. (“Louisiana 1927”) Newman’s just-released new album “Dark Matter” includes the song “Sonny Boy,” wherein the original Sonny Boy Williamson – “the only blues man in heaven” – vents his resentment about having his name and career stolen.