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John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson

With a jaunty bowler hat, a raffish grin and an endless amount of tall stories, harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson was one of the great characters re-discovered by the folk and blues boom of the 1960s. Born Alex Miller on a plantation in rural Mississippi, he taught himself mouth harp and took to the road after his father died in 1932, playing with the likes of Elmore James, Robert Johnson and Big Joe Williams under the names Rice Miller and Little Boy Blue. Hired to play on the King Biscuit Time radio show in Arkansas in 1941, producers changed his name to Sonny Boy Williamson in order to associate him with a nationally famous harmonica player of the same name, before he went on to made his first recordings for Trumpet Records in 1951. A natural showman with a gravelly voice and evil glint in his eye, he became one of the lead artists of Chicago's blues scene and recorded his classics Nine Below Zero, Don't Start Me Talkin', Eyesight To The Blind and Checkin' Up On My Baby for the legendary Chess label, before heading to Europe in 1963, where he was adored by a new generation. Though rather dismissive of the new British R&B bands - "Those English boys, they want to play the blues real bad.and they do - real bad," he said - he recorded with The Yardbirds and The Animals and had a huge influence on The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and Van Morrison. He died of a heart attack in 1965, but remains a key figure in the history of blues and rock and roll with his music continuing to be covered by the likes of Aerosmith, New York Dolls, Dr Feelgood and B.B. King.


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