Sonny Boy Williamson – Keep It To Ourselves

This is one of my favourite acoustic blues albums, and one we regularly use for demonstration.  It is right up there with Muddy Waters’s “Folk Singer”.  The artist was known as Sonny Boy Williamson 11, as opposed to the original Sonny Boy Williamson, real name John Lee Curtis Williamson, who is now known as Sonny Boy Williamson 1.  You would have thought it easy to tell the two apart, but both were ground-breaking harmonica players, and blues singer-songwriters.  Apart from the fact that the first one came from Tennessee, and the second from Mississippi, and the first one died in 1948, and the second not until 1965, the main way to distinguish them is that the artist who recorded Keep It To Ourselves was also a great storyteller.  In fact he claimed that he was born before John Lee Curtis Williamson, and was, in fact, the original Sonny Boy Williamson.  Nobody believed him, but it was a great story.

Anyway, Sonny Boy Williamson 11’s real name was Alex Miller, known by the nickname “Rice” Miller, before he changed it to Sonny Boy Williamson.  In the 1940s he became well-known paying live in the studio every weekday on a radio programme called “King Biscuit Time” broadcast out of Arkansas.  By the late 1950s he had moved to Chicago to record for the Chess label, along with musicians such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley.  In the early 1960s he toured Europe, and played in England often where, as part of the British blues craze, he was held in high esteem, and toured with groups like the Animals and the Yardbirds.  By the time Keep It To Ourselves was recorded in November 1963, he was coming to the end of his career.  His voice may not have been as strong as a few years earlier, but his harmonica playing was sublime.  If you ever wondered why a harmonica is sometimes called a blues harp, just listen to this album and you will understand.  One second the harmonica soars, and the next it sounds like a muted trumpet.

The recording, which was made in Copenhagen, is acoustic, with Sonny Boy Williamson accompanied by Matt “Guitar” Murphy, on guitar, with Memphis Slim, guesting on piano on a few tracks.  I have not heard the original release on Storyville Records, but the Analogue Productions reissue is exceptional for the quality of the recording.  It sounds like the musicians are in the room. On the first track, Elmore James’s “The Sky Is Crying”, he introduces himself and Matt Murphy, who he refers to as MT Murphy, and the name of the song, in his Mississippi drawl.  Then, just before the end of the song, he stamps his foot to emphasise the words.  It makes me jump every time I hear it through speakers, and you can imagine how it sounds through headphones. If you enjoy this album, also listen to “Portrait Of A Bluesman”, that came out of the same sessions.

Paul Janove, Grahams Hi-Fi, London

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