Mississippi Blues Trail Series – Sonny Boy Williamson II in Helena
An Article by Johnny Cole
Photos by Stephen Anderson
The Southland Music Line continues its Mississippi Blue Trail Series as we spotlight one of the markers located in Helena, Arkansas. In 2019 while traveling to the world famous King Biscuit Blues Festival, photographer Stephen “Andy” Anderson, photographed an array of markers celebrating the rich music heritage linked to the state of Mississippi. One such marker located on Biscuit Row (Phillips Street; across from King Biscuit Blues Festival Office) in Helena is called “Sonny Boy Williamson in Helena”.
Helena, known for its thriving blues scene, caused premier bluesmen such as Sonny Boy Williamson II, Robert Johnson, Pinetop Perkins, Houston Stackhouse, James “Peck” Curtis, Honeyboy Edwards and others to call it home for periods of time in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
The Mississippi born Williamson II became well known for his radio appearances on KFFA’s “King Biscuit Time” airing out of Helena. Numerous blues entertainers, including Mississippians Willie Love, Joe Willie Wilkins, Elmore James and W. C. Clay, as well as Robert Lockwood, Jr., from Arkansas and Louisiana’s Robert “Dudlow” Taylor, rode a series of successes for their appearances on the show and frequent performances at some of that area’s most renown blues clubs on both sides of the Mississippi River. Some of those clubs were the Owl Cafe, Busy Bee, Kitty Cat Cafe, Mississippi Cafe, Dreamland Cafe, Silver Moon and the best-remembered juke joint simply known as the Hole in the Wall.
Top Photo: Mississippi Blues Trail marker “Sonny Boy Williamson in Helena” is located on Biscuit Row (Phillips Street -across from King Biscuit Blues Festival Office); Above Photo: The Legendary Sonny Boy Williamson II
The story of Sonny Boy Williamson II is one of uncertainty and often a stretching of the truth. There is even a confusion over the actual birthdate of Williamson II. Even though some have it dating back to the 1890’s, most music historians point to possibly 1912 under the name of Alex or Aleck “Rice” Miller. The influential blues harp stylist went by many names including Willie Miller, Little Boy Blue, Reverend Blue, and Willie Williams. During the late 1930’s, he eventually took his stage name from another popular bluesman, John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson…. thus Williamson II (Miller) became “Sonny Boy No. 2.” It is highly believed that Miller adopted the name of Sonny Boy Williamson to suggest he was the “original” Sonny Boy. Today music scholars simply refer to John Lee Williamson (1914–1948) as “Sonny Boy Williamson I” or “the original Sonny Boy” and to Miller (circa 1912–1965) as “Sonny Boy Williamson II”.
Willamson II made recordings on the Trumpet and Chess labels. Some of his most popular hits “Don’t Start Me Talkin’,” “Keep It to Yourself” and “Help Me” brought him international recognition. While touring Europe in the “Sixties”, he inspired many musicians from across the pond and furthered his appeal as one of the blues’ most celebrated figures. He even recorded with future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees The Animals and The Yardbirds.
Sonny Boy Williamson Il spent much of his life performing abroad. On what would be his final visit to Helena in 1965, he told fellow bluesman, Houston Stackhouse, “I done come home to die now.” Following his death, his sisters would have him buried in Tutwiler, Mississippi (his birthplace). To this very day, fans often leave harmonicas and whiskey bottles on Williamson’s grave.
Mississippi Blues Trail marker “Sonny Boy Williamson in Helena”
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Mississippi Blues Commission
Mississippi Now – Mississippi Department of Archives and History
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