John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson was born in southwest Madison County, Tennessee in 1914. (Not to be confused with Rice Miller ('Sonny Boy Williamson II'). Williamson's father died when he was just a baby, and he was brought up by his mother on a small farm. It was his mother who bought him his first harmonica when he was eleven. From then on farm chores had to compete with his complete love of the instrument. He taught himself to play by listening to records and then copying and extemporising. By the time he was sixteen his talent was obvious and he could hold his own when jamming around Tennessee and Arkansas with guitarist John Estes and mandolin player Jimmie "Yank" Rachell.  When he was twenty Williamson moved to Chicago where he immediately made his mark, first as a much-recruited accompanist and, when he began to play his own compositions, as a much-sought-after headliner.

In 1937, under the direction of Lester Melrose, he made his first recording, the seminal "Good Morning, School Girl", for Victor's subsidiary Bluebird label. That same date also produced "Sugar Mama Blues" and "Blue Bird Blues," both of them every bit as classic in their own right. These recordings introduced his unusual, individualistic, and widely influential instrumental style of "squeezed" notes and "crossed-harp" playing, a style later to be imitated by many others. His call-and-response style of alternating vocal passages with pungent harmonica blasts was a huge musical development that would be adopted by virtually every blues harpist to follow him. Sonny Boy recorded more than 120 sides for Bluebird/Victor between 1937 and 1947, many of them turning up in the post war repertoires of various Chicago blues giants. Many of his recordings are considered blues classics and during this period he performed both as a leader and behind others in the vast Melrose stable, including Robert Lee McCoy, Big Joe Williams, Tampa Red and Big Maceo Merriweather.

Sonny Boy Williamson's life was cut tragically short on June 1st 1948 when, on his way home from a Chicago nightclub, he was mugged and beaten to death aged just 34. His body was taken to Jackson, Tennessee, and buried in an unmarked grave. In 1990, on the 42nd anniversary of his death, the City of Jackson held "John Lee 'Sonny Boy' Williamson Day", and at a ceremony attended by family, officials and hundreds of enthusiasts, his grave was marked by a rose granite gravestone presented by RCA Records.

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