Alex or Aleck Miller ( December 5, 1912 – May 24, 1965), known later in his career as Sonny Boy Williamson, was an American blues harmonica player, singer and songwriter. He was an early and influential blues harp stylist who recorded successfully in the 1950s and 1960s.
Miller used a variety of names, including Rice Miller and Little Boy Blue, before settling on Sonny Boy Williamson, which was also the name of a popular Chicago blues singer and harmonica player. Later, to distinguish the two, Miller became widely known as Sonny Boy Williamson II.
He first recorded with Elmore James on “Dust My Broom” and some of his popular songs include “Don’t Start Me Talkin'”, “Help Me”, “Checkin’ Up on My Baby”, and “Bring It On Home”.
He toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival and recorded with English rock musicians, including the Yardbirds, the Animals, and Jimmy Page. “Help Me” became a blues standard and many blues and rock artists have recorded his songs.
Born Alex Ford (pronounced “Aleck”) on the Sara Jones Plantation in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, his date and year of birth are a matter of uncertainty.
He claimed to have been born on December 5, 1899, but Dr. David Evans, professor of music and an ethnomusicologist at the University of Memphis, claims to have found census record evidence that he was born around 1912, being seven years old on February 2, 1920, the day of the census.
His gravestone in or near Tutwiler, Mississippi, set up by record company owner Lillian McMurry twelve years after his death, gives his date of birth as March 11, 1908, but has no basis to be recognized as accurate.
He lived and worked with his sharecropper stepfather, Jim Miller, whose last name he soon adopted, and mother, Millie Ford, until the early 1930s. Beginning in the 1930s, he traveled around Mississippi and Arkansas and encountered Big Joe Williams, Elmore James and Robert Lockwood, Jr., also known as Robert Junior Lockwood, who would play guitar on his later Checker Records sides.
He was also associated with Robert Johnson during this period. Miller developed his style and raffish stage persona during these years.
Willie Dixon recalled seeing Lockwood and Miller playing for tips in Greenville, Mississippi in the 1930s. He entertained audiences with novelties such as inserting one end of the harmonica into his mouth and playing with no hands. At this time he was often known as “Rice” Miller — a childhood nickname stemming from his love of rice and milk — or as Little Boy Blue.
In 1941 Miller was hired to play the King Biscuit Time show, advertising the King Biscuit brand of baking flour on radio station KFFA in Helena, Arkansas with Lockwood. It was at this point that the radio program’s sponsor, Max Moore, began billing Miller as Sonny Boy Williamson, apparently in an attempt to capitalize on the fame of the well-known Chicago-based harmonica player and singer Sonny Boy Williamson (birth name John Lee Curtis Williamson, died 1948).
Although John Lee Williamson was a major blues star who had already released dozens of successful and widely influential records under the name “Sonny Boy Williamson” from 1937 onward, Aleck Miller would later claim to have been the first to use the name, and some blues scholars believe that Miller’s assertion he was born in 1899 was a ruse to convince audiences he was old enough to have used the name before John Lee Williamson, who was born in 1914.
In the early 1960s he toured Europe several times during the height of the British blues craze backed on a number of occasions by The Authentics (see American Folk Blues Festival), recording with The Yardbirds (see album: Sonny Boy Williamson and The Yardbirds) and The Animals, and appearing on several TV broadcasts throughout Europe. During this time Sonny was quoted as saying of the backing bands who accompanied him, “those British boys want to play the blues real bad, and they do”.
According to the Led Zeppelin biography Hammer of the Gods, while in England Sonny Boy set his hotel room on fire while trying to cook a rabbit in a coffee percolator. The book also maintains that future Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant purloined one of the bluesman’s harmonicas at one of these shows as well. Robert Palmer’s “Deep Blues” mentions that during this tour he allegedly stabbed a man during a street fight and left the country abruptly.
Sonny Boy took a liking to the European fans, and while there had a custom-made, two-tone suit tailored personally for him, along with a bowler hat, matching umbrella, and an attaché case for his harmonicas. He appears credited as “Big Skol” on Roland Kirk’s live album Kirk in Copenhagen (1963). One of his final recordings from England, in 1964, featured him singing “I’m Trying To Make London My Home” with Hubert Sumlin providing the guitar.[cit
Upon his return to the U.S., he resumed playing the King Biscuit Time show on KFFA, and performed in the Helena, Arkansas area.
As fellow musicians Houston Stackhouse and Peck Curtis waited at the KFFA studios for Williamson on May 25, 1965, the 12:15 broadcast time was closing in and Sonny Boy was nowhere in sight. Peck left the radio station to locate Williamson, and discovered his body in bed at the rooming house where he had been staying, dead of an apparent heart attack suffered in his sleep the night before.
Williamson is buried on New Africa Road, just outside Tutwiler, Mississippi at the site of the former Whitman Chapel cemetery. His headstone was provided by Mrs. Lillian McMurry, owner of Trumpet Records; the death date shown on the stone is incorrect.