on 18 June 2010
Sadly, John Lee Williamson's fame as one of the seminal figures in recorded blues has been largely eclipsed by the success of Alex `Rice' Miller, who appropriated his stage name, and enjoyed well-earned acclaim for his harmonica playing during the fifties and sixties, benefitting hugely from the discovery of the blues by white performers and audiences at this time. Thankfully, a small but devoted following has ensured that the original Sonny Boy's music is still fairly readily available on CD.
Completists will want to track down the five-volume set (available as individual discs) released by Document in 2002. But for those who consider the blues an essential but not exclusive part of a well-balanced musical diet, the forty-five cuts on this three-disc set might just be all the Sonny Boy you need.
The packaging, though well-designed, is rather minimalist, with the discs contained in conventional plastic jewel-cases, each featuring the same cover image, and packed into a flimsy card slipcase. There are no liner notes, but the track lists are annotated with dates, locations and personnel. Each disc contains fifteen tracks, and clocks in at around forty-five minutes.
Kicking off with `Better Cut that Out' from 1947, we then jump back ten years to `Good Morning, School Girl', his first recording as a frontman, and from here things run chronologically. The tracks are well-chosen, offering an excellent overview of his ten-year recording career fronting a variety of line-ups from trios with Yank Rachell and Big Joe Williams to full bands featuring drums, bass and piano. The sound quality is generally exceptional for recordings of this vintage, with only the occasion hissy track.
Of course, the main attraction here is Sonny Boy's marvellously expressive harp, rasping, moaning, whooping and wailing through every song. Unlike the Chicago blues players who followed, his sound is unamplified, and for all the growing sophistication of his recordings, it never quite loses the country yelp of his small town roots. But he was also a fine singer with a lazy, slurring delivery developed partly to disguise the endearing stammer that can be clearly heard on `Jivin' the Blues. He also wrote all but one of the songs in this collection.
Though the music easily merits five stars, and this competitively priced compilation stands out from a slew of shoddily packaged alternatives, it's slightly let down by its cut-price packaging and the lack of liner notes.
The collection is rounded off with the life-affirming `Wonderful Time'. Opening with one of Sonny Boy's most infectious solos, and featuring a sublime guitar break by Willie James Lacey, this joyously funny song will leave you with a grin to rival Sonny's in the photo that adorns the cover. Recorded scarcely six-months before his sad and shocking death, this is the way to remember the man who fully deserves to called `father of the blues harmonica'.