Graded on a Curve: Sonny Boy Williamson, Keep it to Ourselves

Rice Miller, better known in the music world as the second Sonny Boy Williamson, is championed most for the recordings he made for Chess Records during the heyday of the post-war Chicago Blues, but he’s also one of the few legitimate stars of that scene to have avoided a period of later artistic decline. Strong evidence of his effectiveness well into the 1960s is provided with the fresh release by Analogue Productions of Keep it to Ourselves, a 200gm LP that reissues the contents of the outstanding 1963 Storyville album Portraits in Blues.

The mysteriousness and flat-out grandeur of Sonny Boy Williamson continues to ripen with age. Shadowy even by the standards of the blues, his date of birth is unknown; it was either 1897, 1899, or 1909.  Even his real name is open to question; some called him Aleck or Alex or Willie, but he was most commonly known by his associates as Rice Miller. However, there’s speculation his surname may have actually been Ford.

What’s certain is that the second Sonny Boy Williamson is amongst the very greatest of the truly seminal post-war bluesmen. And the fact that he swiped his performance moniker from a pre-war Chicago recording artist of no small prominence that just happened to play the same instrument only adds to his fascinating back-story.

John Lee Williamson (aka Sonny Boy Williamson I) was more than just prolific, though. He’s considered by many to be the first great blues harmonica player. Starting in 1937, he knocked out a solid ten years of copious studio work under the direction of Lester Melrose for the Bluebird label, where he hit the R&B charts and served as a major influence for numerous subsequent harp blowers.

Curiously, Rice Miller wasn’t really one of them; he’d been out on the road since the early-‘30s under the name Little Boy Blue (reportedly even playing with Robert Johnson), and in the next decade he became the star of the King Biscuit Time radio show. Hosted by KFFA in Helena AR, it was the first blues radio program in the country (notably still extant today), and it proved such a hit that the show’s sponsor, the Interstate Grocery Company, saw the opportunity to increase sales if Miller adopted the name of a nationally-known harmonica wielding blues figure.

From the vantage point of the present, this blatant act of appropriation is unthinkable, and had Sonny Boy Williamson I not been slain in a street robbery in 1948, it’s doubtful we’d be calling Miller Sonny Boy Williamson II today, since John Lee seemed poised for continued artistic development and commercial success into the 1950s. But post-murder Miller grabbed the title with gusto and even took to calling himself “The Original” Sonny Boy Williamson.

If a regional phenomenon, Miller didn’t begin recording until 1951, which is unsurprising given the circumstances. He already had a good thing going, so good in fact that IGC named line of corn meal after him. Why mess with success? But Trumpet Records’ owner Lillian McMurray eventually tracked him down, and the sides Sonny Boy made for that label over the next three years are amongst the crown jewels of post-war electric Southern blues.

In the pre-CD era, the easiest way to hear these exemplary slices of uncut juke joint glory in one place came via tracking down the LP Blues Classics by “The Original” Sonny Boy Williamson, one of the many stupendous volumes in Arhoolie Records’ long defunct Blues Classics line. Post-digital, Arhoolie placed the album’s 16 cuts onto the compact disc King Biscuit Time, tacking on an enlightening 13 minute clip of a ’65 KFFA broadcast featuring Sonny Boy’s band plus Elmore James’ ’51 debut “Dust My Broom” (captured during a Williamson Trumpet session and featuring the harpist as accompanist) in the bargain.

That Blues Classics rec would make a superb vinyl reissue, but it’s very cool to know the music is readily available for fresh ears in the interim. For if Williamson’s output from the later-‘50s is basically the stuff upon which his reputation rests, the Trumpet material makes it obvious just how fully developed Miller was as he entered the studio setting for the first time.

It was inevitable that Sonny Boy would end up in the stable of Chess Records, and considering that he was rather notorious as a rambler it happened sooner than expected (only a sole ’55 single for the Ace imprint separates his runs for Trumpet and Chess.) In the storied history of Leonard and Phil Chess’ Windy City enterprise, the Howlin’ Wolf is the feral force of nature and Muddy Waters the architect of Delta modernization, but Sonny Boy hangs right up there with them as a striking blend of grit, knowledge, and panache.

Featuring his rich vocalizing and supreme harmonica howl along with the shaping hand of bassist Willie Dixon and key contributions from players as deluxe as guitarists Robert Jr. Lockwood (a long-serving Sonny Boy staple from back in the King Biscuit days), Jimmy Rogers, and even Muddy himself, pianists Otis Spann and Lafayette Leake, and the ever dependable drummer Fred Below, Williamson’s work for the Chess Brothers remains one of the major achievements in the blues, and obtaining at least one of his LP collections for the company is an indispensible addition to any well-rounded shelf.

Please keep in mind though that Williamson’s recordings from this period can be somewhat addictive. Yes, picking up a copy of Down and Out Blues (his long-playing debut from ’59) or The Real Folk Blues is just an action of good common sense, but the contents therein are so tasty they could easily lead one to snapping up editions of More Real Folk Blues, Bummer Road, One Way Out, or In Memoriam. And a person might end up just dropping the necessary coin on the wise investment that is Sonny Boy’s 4CD box The Chess Years.

But unlike some of his peers, Williamson’s work retained much of its creative spark right up to the end of his life in 1965. Furthermore, like Muddy, the Wolf, and John Lee Hooker, he stuck around long enough to partake in the rewards of the ‘60s blues boom, touring Europe extensively and even playing gigs with The Animals and The Yardbirds, the documentation of which found the mentor in solid form as he easily outshined his still green (and surely quite nervous) young protégés.

I’ve always held a soft spot for those recordings though (in particular The Yardbirds set), in part due to how they lack the stench of pure opportunism that lingers around so many later meetings of rockers and bluesmen, but they’re also not where the true non-Chess ‘60s Sonny Boy action is located. Some of the prime goods were initially included on two LPs pressed-up in the mid ‘60s by the Danish label Storyville titled Portraits in Blues and The Blues of Sonny Boy Williamson Vol. 2.

The 19 songs from those albums were drawn from a November ’63 Copenhagen session where Sonny Boy was joined in close tandem with guitarist Matt Murphy and with occasional astute assistance from pianist Memphis Slim and drummer Billie Stepney. Murphy is most famous today as a member of the Aykroyd/Belushi comedy/homage vehicle The Blues Brothers, but he’s more appropriately championed for lending his talents to the records of Little Junior Parker, Bobby Bland, and Memphis Slim as far back as the early-‘50s. At the point of this date with Sonny Boy he was accurately assessed as a guitar master.

By the late-‘80s both of the Storyville volumes were noted for their scarcity, so Alligator Records’ 1990 cherry-picking of a dozen tracks from both LPs under the title Keep it to Ourselves was a welcome turn of events. That’s where I first heard the fruits of that session, and it remains a doozy to this day. But there was always a nagging sense of incompleteness hovering on the periphery, and Analogue Productions new vinyl issue of Keep it to Ourselves appears to be the first step in remedying that feeling of omission.

While three cuts lighter than the Alligator edition, Analogue Productions returns to the original track listing of Portraits in Blues and in doing so, offers an LP that was decades ahead of its time. This is due in part to the fidelity of the recording, the microphones capturing Murphy and Williamson with such closeness and warmth that the proceedings are reminiscent of top-flight ‘80s efforts from labels like Flying Fish, Rounder, and yes, Alligator.

This isn’t an entirely new discovery of course, since the 1990 issue contained many of these same tracks. But this concise version focuses mostly on Sonny Boy either with Murphy or occasionally solo (Slim and Stepney’s contributions essentially serve as added spice) in a setting that’s almost entirely acoustic, with the results frequently captivating as they unfurl like a naturally conceived album.

The opener, a sly cover of Elmore James’ “The Sky is Crying,” sets the record into superb motion. Murphy’s guitar is gorgeously unfussy, serving up rhythmic support as he transcends it with subtle gestures of erudition, particularly during his brilliant structural underpinning of Williamson’s superb harmonica solo.

And Sonny Boy is in strong form, his voice large in the mix and his engagement with the cover choice quickly apparent. A big part of Keep it to Ourselves’ appeal lies in Williamsons’ spoken introductions to the material, and this is especially the case on “Don’t Let Your Right Hand Know,” with the cut deftly slipping from preamble to performance.

Once going, it’s a terrific solo spot blending deep harmonica dexterity (at one point, he manages a wild approximation of a Jew’s harp) with welcome finger-snapping and an extended (over six minutes long) rumination on a familiar blues concept that steers clear of cliché very well. In a nutshell, it’s an exhibition of pure mastery, and that it came at the twilight of a distinguished and singular career only adds to its appeal.

“Coming Home to You Baby” finds Murphy back in the mix, and the level of interplay between the two players, nowhere more than during the guitarist’s excellent solo, is riveting. The looseness in their exchange derives from a combination of intense individual artistry and a shared understanding of each other’s talents, and to describe Keep it to Ourselves as a blues record for jazz buffs is in no way an exaggeration.

But many of those jazz fans are already hip to breadth of Sonny Boy’s expressiveness, for during his stay in Denmark Williamson contributed a wicked harp solo (under the name Big Skol) to one of Roland Kirk’s best LP’s, ‘64’s Kirk in Copenhagen. And across “Coming Home to You Baby” he offers another aspect of his brilliance, specifically elevating deceptively simple lyrics through intensity of emotion and distinctiveness of delivery.

“The Story of Sonny Boy Williamson” finds Stepney joining Murphy to provide simple backing for an oratory that feels at least partially extemporized, and its aura is all the better for it. It remains a real gas to hear him drop the lyrical couplet “from coast to coast/you dig this the most,” and his sincere happiness at touring the world to appreciative audiences is quite palpable.

While it features vocals, “Gettin’ Together” is largely a showcase for Murphy and Williamson’s instrumental prowess. Then Memphis Slim enters along with Stepney on “Little Girl,” and as the guitarist switches to electric this sudden ensemble kicks up a small storm with an off-the-cuff feel that’s unique from the more tightly-controlled environment of the Chess sessions.

Again, the clarity of the recording really raises the stakes here, and it’s crucial to capturing the gradual rise of intensity in Sonny Boy’s foot tapping and the thrilling severity of his blowing on “I Can’t Understand,” the LP’s second solo offering. From there “Slowly Walk Close to Me” possesses lyrics of uncommon vibrancy as part of a tune that as it unwinds undergoes expert formal shifts.

This atmosphere is carried over to Keep it to Ourselves’ closer “I Wonder Do I Have a Friend,” a splendid duo offering of Sonny Boy and Slim, with the pianist at the top of his game. It completes a record that shows just how vital Sonny Boy Williamson’s music was as the end of his life drew closer. And as it plays, the attempt at summation on the part of the artist is plain.

That might be why the ominous rattle of Sonny Boy’s audible cough around ninety seconds into “The Sky is Crying” fazed no one in the room. In sharp contrast to the somewhat maddening retakes of “Little Village” that are offered on disc four of The Chess Years (early on, a pissed-off Williamson calls Leonard Chess a motherfucker), this was an easy-going session unbound from the constraints of perfectionism.

But if loose and informal, Keep it to Ourselves oozes professionalism, and beside his more celebrated early work it compares very well. It’s a splendid late chapter in a fascinating career, and anybody whose taken a liking to his Trumpet sides and Chess albums should feel similarly about this LP.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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