By 1963 when Sonny Boy Williamson was booked on his first European tour, he was already near the end of his illustrious and colourful career. He was the quintessential old time blues musician from the Mississippi; so much so in fact that he sounds like a stereotype – except for the fact that most of his story is true.
He could have been born anywhere between 1897 and 1909, his last name at birth might have been Rice, or Miller, or maybe even Ford. In the 1940s the sponsor of his King Biscuit Time radio show, the Interstate Grocery Company, decided they would sell more flour if he posed as the Chicago Blue Harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson so he pretended that's who he was. When John Lee, the original Sonny Boy Williamson, was murdered our man filled those shoes and continued to do so until his death in 1965.
He started his career playing in juke joints and fish fries with Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Robert Nighthawk, and Robert Jr. Lockwood, and his last recording sessions were with young British musicians he met on his first tour of Europe in the early 1960s: The Yardbirds with Eric Clapton, The Animals with Eric Burdon and Alan Price, and the Brian Auger Band which also included Jimmy Page at the time.
Sonny Boy had gone over to Europe as part of the American Folk & Blues Festival and had so much fun in London he stayed on a permanent houseguest of the Yardbirds' producer Giorgio Gomelsky until his visa ran out. He managed to get back one more time before his death in 1964 and stayed until he felt his time was coming. Then he took himself back to the Delta where he died in bed on May 25th 1965.
One of the last gigs he did was an impromptu concert with a bunch of young Canadian musicians, formally Ronnie Hawkins' band, The Hawks. They were touring down South and went out of their way to hook up with Sonny Boy and backed him up one night in a juke joint. He had spent the whole night in between songs spitting into a bucket. Robbie Robertson went to check out the bucket at the end of the night and discovered it full of blood.
But it was during those two trips to England that the recordings for Bye Bye Sonny were made. They've been gathered together and digitally re-mastered into one two-disc collection for the first time by the Music Avenue label. Disc one features the recordings done with the Yardbirds and the Animals, while Disc two is the session with Jimmy Page and Brian Auger.
What's truly remarkable about Disc one is they were live recordings made in the days when live recordings were massive undertakings and results were horribly unpredictable. So even though the quality of the set with the Animals is not up to the standards we might be used to, you tend to be forgiving when you realize it was done on a single portable Ampex machine. The tapes were originally only meant to be souvenirs of the occasion but because they started wandering around, and being heard all over the place, they were eventually pressed and released.
Despite the quality, or maybe even because of it, it's absolutely amazing to hear. The Animals were just starting to peak as a band with both Alan Price and Eric Burdon really starting to hit their strides as performers. You can hear everybody is having a great time and the music is raw and rough just like good rocking Blues music should be.
The first eleven tracks on Disc one are Sonny Boy with the original Yardbirds including an eighteen-year-old Eric Clapton on lead guitar. He's just starting to find his "voice" and on occasion you'll hear what will later become his trademark sound poking out on a couple of leads. But they are really the backing band for Sonny Boy and he sounds amazing.
His harmonica playing is top notch and his singing is great. On both gigs he is clearly showing the young white boys how it should be done, and they're just happy to be there playing, listening, and trying to keep up with Sonny Boy as he gets deeper into the Scotch as the evening progresses.
The second disc was recorded live in a studio. There were no retakes and the eleven tracks were recorded in two and a half hours as Sonny Boy had to catch his plane back to the States later that day. While there are some pretty obvious mistakes made by Sonny in a couple of the songs, changing the breaks and messing up the rhythms on occasion, the band is good enough and tight enough to keep up.
Again what is great is the sound of his harmonica and voice mixing with these really gifted younger musicians. Brian Auger was already a well-established Jazz and Blues keyboard player and Jimmy Page's guitar was fluid and strong. These tracks have a much more polished feel to them, and not just because they were studio recordings, but because they sound like the work of more experienced musicians.
Sonny Boy was equally at home with Jazz as he was with Blues, and at times these tracks are more reminiscent of the former than the latter. But whatever you want to call it, the music on this disc is great. Even the mistakes in the songs give it an intimacy that you don't normally find in a studio session, of course that could also be down to the fact they were recorded "live".
Bye Bye Sonny is a marvelous record of some great once in a lifetime performances. To have these three recordings gathered together on one recording is a perfect reminder of the influence that American Blues had on some the biggest name of British Rock and Roll of the 1960s. Not only is it fascinating to hear Sonny Boy Williamson sound so amazing even at this late stage in his career, it is equally interesting to hear these young men on the cusp of stardom learning their chops from an expert.
Sonny Boy Williamson didn't make that many recordings in his life, he didn't press his first record until 1951, so these ones made at the end of his illustrious career and life become even more special simply for adding to the catalogue of his recorded music. Whether you buy it for that reason, or from curiosity because of whom he's playing with, Bye Bye Sonny is a great addition to any music collection.