Song Of The Day 8/25/2016: Sonny Boy Williamson II – “Ninety Nine”

I just found out the other day that there were two Sonny Boy Williamsons. The first one was John Lee Curtis Williamson (1914-1948), credited as the first major artist to incorporate the harmonica as a primary blues instrument. The second was Alex or Aleck Miller (1912?-1965), and he became Sonny Boy Williamson thanks in part to the American grain product industry.

Sure, I can explain. Williamson I was based in Chicago, and although he was a recording star at the time he didn't want to tour in the Deep South. In 1941 Miller, aka Williamson II, was cutting his teeth as a blues harp player in Arkansas and Mississippi. He landed a spot on a new show at KFFA in Helena, Arkansas -- at the time the only local station that played black artists -- that was sponsored by the Interstate Grocery Company, whose flagship product was King Biscuit Flour. The show was called King Biscuit Time.

IGC was concerned that few people would listen to the show without a big name. They figured, in their infinite wisdom, that people would be much more likely to tune in (and ergo buy their flour) if they said Sonny Boy Williamson was in the house. So they introduced Miller as Sonny Boy Williamson. Really, who was gonna know? The first Williamson was happily situated in Chicago, out of reach of Arkansas radio and the chances were slim that the ruse would be too much of a big deal. King Biscuit Time was a hit, and so was Sonny Boy II. King Biscuit Flour sales went through the roof. Eventually Sonny Boy II had a line of corn meal named after him.

Since Sonny Boy II's name was getting around, at some point Sonny Boy I found out about the scheme and (the legend goes) showed up at the studio offices of KFFA and demanded that Miller stop using his name. Miller protested that his name really was Sonny Boy Williams (sans the "on"). That didn't work, so the station manager came upon the solution of letting Sonny Boy I have his own show on KFFA as well. That did work, at least for station ratings and sponsor profits, but Sonny Boy I found himself being overshadowed by the talents of Sonny Boy II. He left and went back to Chicago. After Sonny Boy I's vicious murder in 1948, Sonny Boy II continued using the name and defended himself as "the original Sonny Boy."

Such dodgy gambits wouldn't fly today. And don't take this piece as an instruction manual, Trump campaign.

Popular Recent Posts