Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2 was one of the premier harmonica players in blues history and one of the most remarkable and poetic blues composers. Born on a Glendora, Mississippi, plantation under the name Alex (also sometimes cited as Aleck) Miller, he was widely known as Rice Miller or Sonny Boy No. 2 — in deference to John Lee Williamson, another legendary blues harmonica ace who had recorded earlier as Sonny Boy Williamson. A colorful character, sensitive singer and charismatic performer, he left an impressive musical legacy through his recordings of ‘Eyesight to the Blind,’  ‘Help Me,’ ‘Your Funeral and My Trial,’ ‘Fattening Frogs for Snakes,’ ‘Nine Below Zero,’  ‘Mighty Long Time,’ ‘Unseeing Eye,’ and many others made for Trumpet Records in Jackson (1951-1954) and the Chess/Checker company in Chicago (1957-1964). He was also the first star of blues radio broadcasting in the South, famed for his live performances on the influential King Biscuit Time radio show out of Helena, Arkansas, which began in 1941. Williamson’s estimated birthdate of December 5, 1912, is based on census data and recollections of his sisters. The inscription on his gravestone reads ‘Aleck Miller, Better Known as Willie ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson, Born March 11, 1908.’  A trickster who was often in trouble with the law, he also confounded authorities and interviewers by using various other names and birthdates. (Willie Dixon recalled that Williamson’s rationale was: ‘It ain’t none of their business. They don’t even know me.’)

Williamson songs such as ‘Don’t Start Me Talkin” and ‘Keep It To Yourself’ reflected his guarded, suspicious nature, which may well have been influenced by a harsh childhood environment in a locality once notorious for lynchings (including a spate in the years preceding Williamson’s birth and again in 1955 when Emmett Till was murdered).

During his career Williamson teamed with Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Robert Lockwood, Jr., Joe Willie Wilkins, Muddy Waters, and Buddy Guy, and became somewhat of a celebrity in England in the 1960s, performing and recording with a young Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds, the Animals, and others. When Williamson returned to Helena, he told friends he had come home to die. He resumed broadcasting on King Biscuit Time but on May 25, 1965, he failed to show up for the show and was found dead in his room. Helena now celebrates his legacy through the activities of the Sonny Boy Blues Society and the King Biscuit Blues Festival.

(Adapted from Mississippi Blues Trail marker text by Jim O’Neal.)

— Jim O’Neal