Sonny Boy Williamson was born near Glendora, Mississippi in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi between 1897 and 1909, either April 7, Dec. 5, or March 11, 1908 according to a headstone put on his unmarked grave near Tutweiler, Mississippi 12 years after he died.
Williamson lived and worked with his sharecropper step-father and Mother, Jim Miller & Millie Ford until he was 30. He had a falling out that led him to travel and play harmonica through the 1930s around Helena and Greenville, Mississippi and a few neighboring states, where he encountered Blind Lemon Jefferson, Big Joe Williams, Elmore James, and Robert "Junior" Lockwood (his guitarist for his later Chess Records).
He was also associated with Robert Johnson, who died in 1938 as a result of drinking poisoned liquor at a show the two were playing. A first bottle was given to Johnson by a jealous husband, but slapped from his hand by Williamson, warning him about bottles with broken seals. The second strychnined bottle was defiantly guzzled by Johnson.
Wiliamson developed his unique bourgening electric sound and devilish stage persona during these years. Willie Dixon recalled seeing Lockwood and Sonny Boy, with an amplified harmonica, in Greenville in the 30s. He had a number of tricks to captivate an audience, like holding his harmonica beween his top lip and nose and playing with no hands.
Williamson lived in Twist, Arkansas for a time with Howlin' Wolf's sister Mary Burnett, and taught Wolf to play harmonica. In 1941 Miller was hired to play the King Biscuit Time show on radio station KFFA in Helena with Lockwood.
The owner, Max Moore, billed him as Sonny Boy Williamson after the harmonica legend John Lee Williamson(see Sonny Boy Williamson.) Thus, Aleck "Rice" Miller became "Sonny Boy Williamson", and Lockwood and the rest of his band were the King Biscuit Boys. His growing renown took him places like West Memphis, Arkansas, where he did a KWEM radio show selling the elixir Hadacol.
When Trumpet went bankrupt in 1955, Sonny Boy's recording contract was yielded to its creditors, who sold him to Chess Records in Chicago, Illinois. Williamson recorded about 70 songs for Chess Records from 1955 to 1964. In the 1960s he toured Europe to feed the largely British blues explosion, recording with The Yardbirds and The Animals.
Williamson married Mattie Gordon in the 1940s, who remained his wife until his death on May 25, 1965 (or June 23, 1965, according to the headstone) in Helena, Arkansas. Williamson was characterized by a hip-flask of whiskey, a pistol, a knife, a foul mouth, and a short temper. He had always worn fancier suits than he could afford, and his tour of Europe allowed him further embellishment, adding a finely tailored black suit and a bowler hat to his unique, grey-goateed image.
Some of his hits include "Don't Start Me To Talkin'," Keep It To Yourself," "Bye Bye Bird," "Nine Below Zero," and the infamous "Little Village," with its R-rated false start intro dialogue with Leonard Chess.