The man they call Sonny Boy Williamson II started out as a kid named Rice Miller. Pulling tricks with his harmonica on the streets of Greenville, Mississippi. He could put the whole thing in his mouth, spin it around, and play it with his hands behind his back. Even played it with his nose.
He was young, but he hit the blues circuit with the best of them: running across the likes of Willie Dixon, Elmore James, and Robert Johnson. Before long, Rice Miller was hired to a steady gig. Advertising King Biscuit baking flour on an Arkansas Radio Station.
And that’s when he got his name: Sonny Boy number two. You see, there was already a Sonny Boy Williamson I—a wildly successful harmonica player in Chicago. The sponsors of King Biscuit Time knew this and wanted to capitalize on Number One’s fame. Sonny Boy II was born.
This second Sonny Boy went on to tour all over Europe and America, leaving behind legions of fans and a serious body of work. He may have been the second, but there’s nothing second rate about this Sonny Boy.
He can make a harp moan like no other—really make it cry. And when he puts that harmonica down, his voice is a velvet vibrato that’ll buckle your knees. He writes some mean words too. Tell me I ain’t lyin’. Here is Rice Miller a.k.a. Sonny Boy Williamson II. Help Me.
Alex “Rice” Miller, also known as Sonny Boy Williamson II was born on the Sara Jones Plantation in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, on December 5. The year of his birth is disputed, but ethnomusicologists have recently settled on 1912 as an acceptable date.
As a young man, Miller worked as a sharecropper alongside his stepfather, harvesting cotton and doing fieldwork. At the same time, he began playing his harmonica for tips on the streets of Greenville, Mississippi.
In 1941, Miller was hired on to the King Biscuit Time Show, to advertise King Biscuit Baking Flour on the KFFA radio station in Helena, Arkansas. It was about this time that the producers and sponsors started billing him as Sonny Boy Williamson II, with his band as the King Biscuit Boys. In 1949, he moved in with his sister and her husband, Howlin’ Wolf.
Sonny Boy II’s first recording session took place at Trumpet Records in 1951. After Trumpet went bankrupt in 1955, Sonny Boy II was signed to Chess records. It was during his years on Checker, a Chess subsidiary label, that he garnered the most acclaim.
Sonny Boy II recorded all throughout the fifties and sixties, eventually finding an audience in Europe during the folk blues revival. He made a number of recordings while overseas, including albums with The Yardbirds and the Animals. The Led Zeppelin Biography “Hammer of the Gods,” makes much mention of Sonny Boy, including the story that he set his hotel room on fire while trying to cook a rabbit in a coffee percolator, and that Robert Plant stole one of his harmonicas. Author Robert Palmer maintains that Sonny Boy II greatly enjoyed his time abroad—until he stabbed a man in a street fight in England, and had to abruptly leave.
He returned to the US, and to the King Biscuit Time show. Sonny Boy Williamson II died of a heart attack in his sleep on May 25, 1965. He was discovered after he didn’t show up to the station for his radio hour.