Sonny Boy Williamson I

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It is legend (of the local variety) that the Blues on the Fox festival was started after a group of local music buffs and blues aficionados (and movers and shakers) stumbled on the fact that Aurora’s Leland Tower was the place where dozens (actually hundreds) of blues songs were recorded in the 1930’s. Not the least of those recordings were the first by legend (of the more national variety) Sonny Boy Williamson.  That larger legend is an interesting story.

John Lee Curtis Williamson (a/k/a Sonny Boy Williamson I) was born March 30, 1914, in Jackson Tennessee. In many ways, we have Sonny boy Williamson to credit for guys like Muddy Waters (and the whole Chicago Blues scene), the Blues Brothers and harmonica as a staple blues instrument. Sonny Boy is credited with popularizing the harmonica as a lead instrument in the Blues, which is why he is known as the “father of the modern blues harp”.

His most famous piece, Good Morning, School Girl, was recorded for Bluebird on May 5, 1937, in the Sky Club of the Leland Tower is considered “a blues standard which has been called ‘an important influence in the Chicago blues’”. The song, which found its rightful place in the Blues Hall of Fame in 1990, has been covered by a long list of influential artists, not the least of which is Muddy Waters.

Sonny Boy Williamson I (yes I), himself, was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 where he is rightly considered “the forefather of the postwar Chicago blues style”. He brought with him to Chicago the musical styling of his Tennessee roots with influences he picked up in St. Louis on his way to the place where he had the most influence (Chicago) and where he also met an untimely death. He was robbed, beaten and stabbed with an icepick and died on a sidewalk in Chicago on June 1, 1948, at the age of only 34.

Perhaps the greatest legacy of Sonny Boy Williamson I, however, may be the way he took the blues harp (harmonica) from second rate musical instrument to the front of the stage. His virtuoso with the harmonica makes him “not only one of the most important blues harmonica players in history (and the first true ‘Chicago-style’ harp player), but also one of the most influential bluesmen of all time.”

Sonny Boy Williamson I is not only a significant part of Blues history, and especially Chicago Blues, but he is part of the fabric of the musical history of the Fox Valley as a result of those Bluebird recordings in Aurora.  What a shame that such a talented and prolific artist (with over 120 recordings to his name) passed on at such an early age. The first Sonny Boy Williamson’s early demise, however, opened the door for Sonny Boy Williamson II (born Aleck Ford) who might be the greatest harmonica player ever, but that is another story.

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