Aleck “Rice” Miller (died May 25, 1965) blues harp player, singer and songwriter. He was also known as Sonny Boy Williamson II, Willie Williamson, Willie Miller, Little Boy Blue, The Goat and Footsie.
"These (young English) boys wanna play the blues so bad; and they play it -- so bad." -
Sonny Boy Williamson II
Yes he was a bit forthright and sometimes abrasive -but his playing can still inspire.
Those learning and also those experienced blues harp players can learn much from one of the greats of blues harp playing – Aleck Rice Miller.
Take some time to re-run some of the videos below and enjoy his phrasing, his economy on his note playing and his timing.
Your funeral – my trial
Nine below zero
Keep it to your self
I’m a lonely man
What’s gonna happen to you
It’s raining outdoors baby
And a particular favourite of mine and Sonny Boy’s European tour ‘theme tune’
Bye Bye Bird
And a little analysis:
Rice Miller is thought to have played entirely in tongue blocking
Bye Bye Bird starts on a low C diatonic (Hohner #364 or 365), switches to a
C-10 hole diatonic, and then switches back to the low C.
and from harmonica for dummies
he’s playing a low C harp – pitched one octave lower than a regular C harp. The Hohner Marine Band No. 364 is a 12-hole harp that comes in C, D, and G. The keys of C and D are pitched an octave lower, and that’s what you’re hearing. On the Chess recording of this tune, he switches briefly to a regular C after the vocal, then goes back to the low C to finish the tune.
And what better mixture than two greats playing together-
Got my mojo working -with Muddy Waters
Just listen to the dramatic start of this one:
Sonny Boy is playing in the Key of F using B-flat harp.(jt30.com)http://www.jt30.com/jt30page/helpme/
Let’s start right from the beginning. Sonny Boy plays a nice little intro. It is deceptively easy.
He kicks off the 3 draw and slides up to the 4 blow and plays the 4 bent and then slides it up to the 4 draw unbent. He holds the 4 unbent and then slowly bends it down. As he reaches the fully bent note he quickly slides down the 3 hole draw and the 2 hole draw – so fast that you can hardly hear it.
We practice juke so much that we always want to start off of the 2 hole draw. The 2 hole is, after all, the tonic and our home note. Sonny Boy creates tension here by using the 3 hole draw as his kick off. Our ears want us to get to the 2 hole, but Sonny Boy just barely hints at it by bending down the 4 slowly towards it and just tapping the 2 hole at the end of that slide.
Note: Sonny boy misses the 3 hole slightly when he starts out and you can hear he is “Playing the post” not the hole – he’s not quite centered on the 3 and there’s a little 2 hole in it. I don’t think this was on purpose. This is not the kind of thing you can practice. You can, however, play the 2 hole and immediately slide up to the 3. The 2 hole hardly sounds before you hit the post. The suction in your mouth builds and then when you hit the 3 hole, it is released with a sharp defining edge to the note. Practice this technique of playing a note and then sliding up immediately to get a good punch on the draw note above. You can do it on any of the draw notes, not just the 3.
Sonny Boy, by sliding down to the 2 hole, has positioned himself for the chugs.
Next, he kicks off the 2 hole single bend. I almost always use the 2 hole bent all the way down and if I need to, I step up through the half bend, but here, against my tendencies, is the 1/2 bend to start with, sliding up to the unbent note.
(Held with tremelo)
He hits the 3 hold first bend and slides it to the 4 hole. He’s bending a little on both notes, but they are just a little flat. You can hear him unbend to the 4 hole draw
He plays the 4 blow, but it has a little 3 blow mixed in with it. He’s heading back down, so he hits the 3 hole draw as a transition and heads down to the 2-3 chug and catches the beat there. You expect the 2 hole draw after the 3 hole draw, but his sense of timing is so good that he hesitates so as to catch the chug in the right place.
After chugging he goes for the 5 chord. He heads up to the 5 hole draw bent, sliding up through the 3 and 4 hole draws so fast that you can just hear them.
(Hold with tremelo)
Sonny Boy slides down again to the 4 draw and bends it down and back up again, all in one fluid motion. He chews on this awhile giving it a nice tremelo that is part throat vibrato and and half wavering bend, bringing the 4 hole down a little and back up. At the end he bends the 4 down all the way and back up and then plays the 3/4 holes draw and then blow. Sonny Bow has just had a long draw and as a heavy smoker, needed a quick breath to get the next notes.
The next note follows immediately with a 3 draw and a long 4 hole blow for the 4 chord.
He slides back to the 3 draw – implying but not playing the 2 draw. He hesitates to emphasize the beat, and then back to the chugs! He doesn’t play the turn around – he just chugs.
Riffs between Vocal phrases
When Sonny Boy sings he has the harp in his hand and can quickly play a riff and then continue singing, without any pause at all.
Through out the first and second verses, Sonny Boy plays the chug on the 2/3 draw between phrases until he hits the 4 chord where he blows on the 2/3 to make a 4 chord chug. It’s much harder to “punch” a blow than a draw so make sure that you really give it a good “CHUCK-CHUCK” vocalization, perhaps “DUCK-DUCK” is nearer to the mark.
Then into the 5 chord before “I’ll have to find myself somebody else” he plays the 5 chord riff:
He plays the 1 chord base which is the 2 draw, bends it down all the way (a very cool flat 7th) and the bounces on the 1 hole draw. The 1 hole draw is the 5 chord so he plays it three times. These notes should not sound mushy so make sure you articulate them well with the phrase “Dirt-ty dog, dog, dog!” (actually I use dee-yah dah dah dah, articulating the bend slows me down too much).
The 2 hole unbent has a little 3 hole leaking through. Sonny Boy was not exactly on the 2 hole when he started playing.
Then he sings the punch line – “I’ll have to find myself somebody else” and goes for the turnaround.
He bends the 2 hole down and bounces it up to the 2 unbent, letting in a little 3 hole. He plays this for what sounds like 4 times and drops back the the 2 hole full bend and settles down on the 1 hole draw for the 5 chord in the turnaround.
This is the first real solo in the song and Sonny boy incorporates a few of his own riffs into it. When you hear this, there is no doubt who is playing the harp.
Sonny comes out of the turnaround of the last verse and starts a warble going on the 3 and 4 hole draws.
After about 16 times he draws the 3 down to break up the warble a little and indicate the bar change.
The warble continues for a few more times and Sonny Boy takes a breath. He then jumps up to a wail on the 5 draw. This is like a fast 4, implied, but not played. He slides up the 5 and catches a little 4 draw on the way up.
Sonny Boy steps down, none to cleanly from the 5 draw to a 5 blow, a 4 draw, 4 blow down to the 3 draw where begins his warble again. The steps are loose and bleed notes from either side as he slides down.
He takes another big breath – all those cigarettes are taking their toll on him. He hits the 5 draw wailer again, lightly touching the 3 and the 4 draw on the way up.
This time he doesn’t play the 5 hole blow, but slides to the 4 draw instead, skipping the blow note. In order to keep the note count right he pulls down, bending the 4 draw and then letting it loose again. He then slides quickly through the 3 draw and the 2 draw. He’s setting up for one of Sonny Boy’s coolest patterns.
I visualize this as a kind of Celtic knot. Sonny boy is playing a 3 in 4 rhythm twist that is hard to wrap your mind around. This is played as soon as the organ goes to the 4 chord and sounds best when played as a kind of melody break counterpoint to the 4 chord.
I have trouble on the pattern of Blow-Blow-Blow in the middle where he plays the 4 hole blow, 3 hole blow and back to 4 hole blow. My mind doesn’t want to do that. Then at the end of the first iteration he plays a 3 draw and a 4 blow to get him back to the 4 draw in the second iteration. I want to take a breath or pause there. Sonny Boy fills that space. Then at the end, the 4 draw bent, sliding up to the 4 draw seems to be a surprise as the organ goes back to the 1 chord and Sonny Boy has finished his little complication.
He slurs the last bit of the above riff – maybe he’s running out of air. Not all the notes are clean and he’s bending his draws just a little flat, especially the 3 draw – that first bend is part of the minor sound of the music.
At the end of a long wail on the 4 he bends it down and back up and then slides down to the 2 draw. The 3 and then the 2 draw are just touched as he slides off the 4 draw.
Just so we won’t forget. Sonny Boy’s wonderful timing catches the two chugs at exactly the right time. You can hear him exhale after the chugs to get the breath for this finale to the verse.
He then heads up for a 5 draw wail for the 5 chord, hitting a few notes on the way up, dropping down to the 4 draw, then bending it and back up to the unbent 4 draw.
After the wail you can hear him do a little warble up and down from the 4 to the 5 draw, ending after only two of these with the 4 draw bent. He then exhales, sounding the 4 hole blow, but you can hear a little 2 and 3 and even some 5 blow. This is a very muddy sound and he is really getting breath for the chord change.
The song goes into the 4 chord and he does another warble thing, but more complicated then a two note warble. I have this slowed down and I hear this complicated thing, that you can’t hear when played at normal speed.
( )( ) ( )( )
The main pattern is a warble with a draw-blow pattern, drawing on the 3 and then blowing on the 4. (The 2 hole at the beginning is just the step up into this pattern.) What Sonny Boy does on the second and third times through this pattern is slide the draw up to the 4 draw immediately blowing on the 4. This gives a little bluesey shuffle sound to the warble. He doesn’t do it the last 2 times and then he drops down to the 2 hole blow when the organ hits the 1 Chord.
As in the Intro, Sonny Boy chugs through the turnaround.
And some biographical info:
Sonny Boy Williamson II: A Biography
By Dennis Ward (SHS)
Sonny Boy Williamson was one of the most inspiring harmonica players. He also helped make the way for modern blues today. Some people said that he was very unpredictable and a good liar. Sonny was also consider to be a show-off because once on stage, he would put the whole harmonica in his mouth and still play a song. Sonny was known in most black households for being a radio star. He often used the name Alex “Rice” Miller. Sonny Boy Williamson began playing guitar and harmonica at the age of five and was performing in juke joints and clubs throughout Mississippi and Arkansas under the name Little Boy Blue by the early ’20s. During the ’30s, he played at the Grand Ole Opry and worked with legendary bluesmen like Elmore James, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf and Robert “Junior” Lockwood. He took the name Sonny Boy Williamson in 1941 and became a regular on the King Biscuit Hour. Sonny and Lockwood were called the King Biscuit Entertainers. Later on, Sonny and Lockwood joined with Peck Curtis, Dublow Taylor, and Pinetop Perkins to become a band. (L.R.CHIN). Williamson didn’t start recording until 1951 when he signed with Trumpet in Jackson, Mississippi. In 1955 he signed with the Checker Chess label until the early 60’s. He moved to Chicago. Williamson then toured Europe as part of the American Negro Blues Festival with Willie Dixon, who was the talent coordinator, and Horst Lippman, the promoter, along with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Lonnie Johnson, Sleepy John Estes, Big Joe Williams, Otis Spann and others. Later Sonny Boy Williamson returned to England to tour the college circuit on his own with a young Eric Clapton
and the Yardbirds as his backup band.
And Sonny Boy II’s impressive back catalogue:
- 23 Hours Too Long
- “99” [a.k.a. Ninety Nine]
- All My Love In Vain
- All Night Boogie [instrumental]
- Baby Don’t Worry [a.k.a. Baby, Don’t You Worry]
- Baby Please Come Back Home
- Boppin’ With Sonny [retitled take of Clownin’ With The World]
- Born Blind [a.k.a. Eyesight To The Blind]
- Bring It On Home [Willie Dixon]
- Bye Bye Bird [Willie Dixon, Sonny Boy Williamson]
- Bye Bye, Sonny, Bye Bye
- Cat Hop
- Checkin’ Up On My Baby
- Chicago Bounce
- City Of New Orleans
- Close To Me — see (I Want You) Close To Me
- Clownin’ With The World [Instrumental]
- 2/11/54 (TAKE 1), CWTW, BWS
- 2/11/54 (TAKE 2) — SEE BOPPIN’ WITH SONNY
- Come Go With Me
- 5/65 (RADIO BROADCAST), KBT
- Come On Back Home
- Coming Home To You Baby
- Cool, Cool Blues
- Cool Disposition
- Crazy About You Baby
- Cross My Heart
- Decoration Day (John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson)
- Do It If You Wanna
- Do The Weston [Instrumental]
- Don’t Let Your Right Hand
- Don’t Lose Your Eye
- Don’t Make A Mistake
- Don’t Send Me No Flowers
- Don’t Start Me To Talkin’
- Down And Out
- Down Child [a.k.a. Mr. Downchild]
- Empty Bedroom
- Eyesight To The Blind [a.k.a. Born Blind]
- Fattening Frogs For Snakes
- Find Another Woman
- From The Bottom [written by Lillian McMurry but credited to “Willie Williamson”]
- 12/11/54 (TAKE 1), SBR
- 12/11/54 (TAKE 2), TPT
- 12/11/54 (TAKE 3), SBR
- 12/11/54 (TAKE 6), SBR 228, GIYD, BWS
- Gettin’ Out Of Town
- Gettin’ Together
- Going In Your Direction
- Good Evening Everybody
- Got To Move
- Had My Fun (Goin’ Down Slow)(St. Louis Jimmy Oden)
- Have You Enjoyed My Play?
- Have You Ever Been In Love
- Help Me [R. Bass, Sonny Boy Williamson]
- Hurts Me So Much
- 8/2/57 (TAKE 1), DMAM
- 8/2/57 (TAKE 2), DMAM
- 8/2/57 (TAKE 3), DMAM
- I Can’t Be Alone
- I Can’t Do Without You
- I Can’t Understand
- I Cross My Heart
- I Don’t Care No More
- I Don’t Know
- 8/2/57 (TAKE 1), CKR 864, DAOB, TIMS, DMAM, SBW, TESBW, HB
- 8/2/57 (TAKE 2), CH CD 9330
- 13/10/63 (LIVE), DMAM, SBWIE
- I Know What Love Is All About
- I Never Do Wrong
- I See A Man Downstairs
- (I Want You) Close To Me [a.k.a. Close To Me] [Willie Dixon]
- I Wonder Do I Have A Friend
- I Wonder Why
- I’m Gonna Put You Down
- I’m Not Beggin’ Nobody
- I’m So Glad
- I’m Trying To Make London My Home
- It’s A Boody Life
- It’s Rainy Outdoors, Baby
- (It’s) Sad To Be Alone [a.k.a. Sad To Be Alone]
- Keep It To Yourself
- Keep Your Hand Out Of My Pocket
- Key To Your Door — see The Key (To Your Door)
- Leavin’ Blues
- Let Me Explain
- Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide
- Like Wolf
- Little Girl
- Little Girl How Old Are You
- Little Village
- 1/9/57 (TAKES 1-11), BR
- 1/9/57 (EDITED), TESBW
- Lonesome Cabin
- Mighty Long Time
- Movin’ Down The River
- Movin’ Out
- Mr. Downchild — see Down Child
- My Babe
- My Younger Days
- Night Time Is The Right Time
- Nine Below Zero
- Ninety Nine — see “99”
- No Nights By Myself [same tune as “Mighty Long Time”; new lyrics written by Lillian McMurry but credited to “Willie Williamson”]
- Nobody But You
- November Boogie [Instrumental]
- On My Way Back Home
- Once Upon A Time
- One Way Out [Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James, Marshall Sehorn]
- Open Road
- Out On The Water Coast
- Peach Tree
- Pontiac Blues
- Rebecca Blues [Peter Chatman]
- Red Hot Kisses [written by and credited to Lillian McMurry]
- Right Now [Willie Love]
- 5/65 (RADIO BROADCAST), KBT
- Sad To Be Alone — see (It’s) Sad To Be Alone
- Same Girl
- Santa Claus
- She Brought Life Back To The Dead
- She Got Next To Me
- 27/3/58 (TAKE 1), BR
- 27/3/58 (TAKE 2), SBW
- She Was Dumb
- She’s Crazy
- She’s My Baby
- Shuckin’ Mama
- Slow Walk
- Slowly Walk Close To Me
- Somebody Help Me
- Sonny Boy’s Christmas Blues
- Sonny Boy’s Girlfriends
- Sonny Boy’s Harmonica Boogie
- Sonny’s Rhythm [Instrumental]
- Sonny’s Slow Walk
- Steady Rollin’ Man
- 1958, FLYR LP 567, PAULA CD 07
- Stop Crying
- Stop Now Baby
- Stop Right Now
- Stormy Monday
- 5/65 (RADIO BROADCAST), KBT
- Take It Easy Baby
- Take Your Hands Out Of My Pocket
- 1958, FLYR LP 567, PAULA CD 07
- Temperature 110
- That’s All I Want [Willie Dixon]
- The Goat
- The Hunt
- The Key (To Your Door) [a.k.a. Key To Your Door]
- The Sky Is Crying [Lewis, Robinson, James]
- The Story Of Sonny Boy Williamson
- This Is My Apartment
- This Old Life
- Tippin’ Through Customs
- Too Close Together
- Too Old To Think
- Too Young To Die
- Trust My Baby
- Trying To Get Back On My Feet
- Understand My Life
- Unseen Eye
- Unseeing Eye
- V-8 Ford
- 5/65 (RADIO BROADCAST), KBT
- Wake Up Baby
- West Memphis Blues
- When The Lights Went Out
- Who’s Gonna Take Care Of You?
- Why Are You Crying?
- Work With Me
- You Killing Me
- Your Funeral And My Trial
- Your Imagination