Robbie Robertson, Jim McCarty remember the legend of Sonny Boy Williamson II: ‘He was good fun’

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Sonny Boy Williamson II, who died on May 25, 1965, found belated fame with a new generation of blues-loving rock ‘n’ rollers just before his death — playing a celebrated European tour with the Yardbirds, and recording with the likes of Eric Clapton.

The group that would one day become the Band tracked him down, hoping to work with Williamson, as well. This wasn’t at any sold-out UK venue, however. Instead, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm and Co. sat in with Williamson in a much less auspicious setting — inside a corn liquor-serving country speakeasy in the bluesman’s homestate of Arkansas.

Alas, it was so late in Williamson’ life that he was already battling ferocious ailments, using what appeared to be a spittoon to collect expectorated blood. “I thought: ‘These blues guys. They’re so bad ass, they just split blood when they want to,'” Robertson told the Blues Mobile.

Williamson’s “Eyesight to the Blind” would become the only cover song in the Who’s Tommy, while his “One Way Out” was recorded by both the Allman Brothers and Aerosmith. In some ways, his eccentricities — changing his name from Aleck “Rice” Miller to Sonny Boy Williamson, despite there already being a bluesman with that name, wearing an English gentleman’s bowler hat, so on — were just as legendary.

“Well, he was funny, Sonny Boy,” Yardbirds co-founder Jim McCarty told Get Ready to Rock. “He was a really old blues man, but he was very nice to us. He was a bit like your old uncle, you know. [Laughs.] He was good fun. We just toured the UK with him. He was a real character.”

Williamson had been on the King Biscuit Time Show on KFFA out of Helena, Arkansas, as early as 1941, but wouldn’t have his first recording sessions until 1951, at Lillian McMurry’s Trumpet Records in Jackson, Mississippi. He later appeared with Roland Kirk and Hubert Sumlin, telling so many tall tales along the way that folks back home in Arkansas were unsure who much, if any of it, was true.

“We were in Helena, and we had been playing around,” Robertson remembered. “It’s close to Levon’s hometown. I suggested, because I had only heard stories that Levon had told about Sonny Boy being on the King Biscuit Flower Hour: ‘Why don’t we go over and see if we can find Sonny Boy Williamson’?”

They eventually found Williamson, not in some juke joint, but walking the streets of a neighborhood that Robertson said was referred to as the Holler. He was just as they expected, “with his bowler hat on, a briefcase full of harmonicas, a little microphone and this suit that he’d gotten in England — because he had just come back from England. He’d had it tailored a certain way, with black on one side and gray on the other. It was like a vision coming down the street.”

The times were such that, despite Williamson’s fame overseas, Robertson says they later got kicked out of a local eating establishment in Helena by a group of racist cops — who said they weren’t allowed to share a meal with African-Americans. A few weeks later, Williamson was dead. McMurry provided the headstone, in Tutwiler, Mississippi.

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