Sonny Boy




















One of two artists who performed and recorded under the name Sonny Boy Williamson, the other being John Lee 'Sonny Boy' Williamson. Rice Miller, who adopted the name, was the older of the two but recorded later than 'John Lee' who, after all, was born as Williamson and was the first to use the nickname (despite claims to the contrary by Miller). Rice Miller is recognized as a giant throughout the blues world as a harmonica player, vocalist, songwriter, prolific recording artist, live performer and generally colourful personality. Since he was always liable to inject some 'colour' into his own accounts of his life and upbringing, some details he gave are open to question. He was also present, along with Dave Honeyboy Edwards, the night Robert Johnson was allegedly poisoned in Three Forks, Mississippi.

He was born illegitimately on a plantation in Glendora, Mississippi, to Millie Ford, probably towards the end of the 1890's, although his actual age has never been determined and several other dates have been cited. He was christened Aleck Ford but later took the name Miller from his step father. He was one of 21 children, his step-father being a blacksmith, and the family moved to Money, Mississippi, when he was a young boy. They also lived for a while in Helena, Arkansas. Miller taught himself to play the harmonica and by the early 1920's he was a wandering musician playing on street corners and at dances in the Delta plantation towns. During this period he performed under various names that included Little Boy Blue, Willie Williamson and Willy Mither.

Miller developed a delicate yet rugged style of harmonica that perfectly fitted his voice. His sound was entirely his own and he was a major influence on other harp players, James Cotton (whom Sonny Boy raised and tutored), Junior Wells, Howling Wolf and Junior Parker are outstanding examples. He eventually joined KFFA radio in Helena, Arkansas in 1941. He was on the air 15 minutes a day at lunch time to advertise King Biscuit Flour,  "King Biscuit Time" becoming an institution in the Delta. He was joined by artists such as Robert J Lockwood, Joe Willie Wilkins, Elmore James, and Houston Stackhouse. He became a star in the Delta, playing dances and parties every weekend and broadcasting virtually every weekday for ten years.

It was at this time that Rice Miller adopted the name Sonny Boy Williamson. (At that time John Lee 'Sonny Boy' was enjoying great success performing in Chicago, and recording with Lester Melrose. Melrose himself visited KFFA Radio and provided a further link between the two artists.) Miller was also a contemporary of John Lee Williamson in Chicago during the same period, both playing the clubs with Miller frequently appearing at 'The Purple Cat' gin palace, often accompanied by artists such as Homesick James  Williamson.

Miller himself began recording in 1951, first with Trumpet records and then with Chess, and had a hugely successful career. He made some of the most influential blues records of all time, e.g. "Help Me", "Eyesight To The Blind", "Nine Below Zero", "Mighty Long Time", "One Way Out", "Don't Start Me Talking", "Keep It To Yourself",  and "Bring It On Home". He then became one of the first of the American bluesmen to visit Europe in 1963 and loved the adulation he received from young white fans. He particularly liked England and would appear on stage in bowler hat and two-tone business suit, often carrying a rolled umbrella! He returned to Europe again in 1964 and then, with his health failing, he moved back to Arkansas and finally to Mississippi where he died in 1965.