Most blues musicians have historically opted for the guitar as their main instrument. For Sonny Boy Williamson, it was the harmonica, or “blues harp.” Born John Lee Curtis Williamson, he revolutionized the instrument, making it a prominent solo device instead of one that acts as a decorative piece in the background. Originally from Tennessee, he eventually moved to Chicago, and his subsequent influence reached far and wide. His work became a prominent part of the pre-war Chicago blues scene, and continued to influence future musicians even after his untimely death in the ’40s. One blues legend in particular, Muddy Waters, was heavily influenced by Williamson’s compositions.
Not to be confused with Sonny Boy Williamson II who came along later in the ’50s, the original Sonny Boy Williamson was a trailblazing figure and helped usher in the blues to modern times. For a look at the blues’ most formative years, check out the best Sonny Boy Williamson songs below.
10. Good For Nothing Blues
Ragtime blues king Big Bill Broonzy teamed up with Sonny Boy Williamson for this languid delta blues-tinged composition. While Sonny’s lively harmonica work drives the 12-bar effort, Broonzy’s smooth guitar work lays a strong foundation. It’s easy to get lost in their instrumental skillset as the two play over one another. Soon, the verses come in, and Sonny paints a mournful picture of a heartsick man who’s in a romantic relationship that’s hanging on by a thread. Williamson’s work influenced young talent who would go on to become prominent figures in the post-war Chicago blues movement. Key elements of that movement can be found in Sonny’s recordings, from the piano with plenty of attitude and flare, to his singing harmonica, and his own expressive vocals. ‘Good for Nothing Blues’ contains two worlds, one of 1920s early acoustic blues, and one of the more electrified 1930s trends that gave way to rocking blues powerhouses of the ’40s. It makes for a dazzling combination.
Recommended: Our windswept selection of Chicago city songs.
9. I Been Dealing with the Devil
Released as a single in 1940, hints of Robert Johnson’s ghost pop up in Williamson’s ‘I’ve Been Dealing with the Devil.’ Sonny really scoops those “devil” syllables, giving the last notes of the chorus hook an eerie atmosphere. The blistering piano also colors the track, adding to the tension created by the story, which finds our protagonist comparing his wife to the evils of the devil (very intense!). Stark imagery is produced by couplets like, “She sleeps with an ice pick in her hand, man, and she fights all in her dream.” While it’s a little too rocking to be classified as a delta blues number, its central heartbreak theme makes it southern gothic to the core.
Recommended: Our devilish pick of the best Robert Johnson songs.
8. Better Cut That Out
One of Williamson’s last recordings, ‘Better Cut That Out’ is a cautionary tale serving as a warning about the dangers of life lived in the fast lane. Originally written by friend and fellow musician Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Boy was no stranger to vice, often having to deal with the headaches that came along with being a blues musician in the 1930s and 1940s, so he related to Broonzy’s song. His experience and stripes earned made him a qualified teacher for the up-and-comers who would have to deal with the same issues that accompanied nightlife at various live music clubs in Chicago. The recording is surprisingly clean, not because of Sonny’s playing (Broonzy also stepped into the studio to collaborate with him for his rendition). Their showmanship is always polished. The recording itself features a band setting with shuffling drums and piano. Despite 1940s equipment, the production value is solid for the time, catching the unique magic Williamson and his fellow bluesmen always delivered while playing live.
Recommended: Our choice of the best Big Bill Broonzy songs.
7. Good Gravy
Evoking the same vibe as Robert Johnson’s 1937 ‘They’re Red Hot’ release, ‘Good Gravy’ is a jovial tune reminiscent of the days of street vendors and local mom and pop shops serving up homecooked meals for their respective small towns. With a ragtime rhythm, Williamson really wails on the harmonica. He takes a couple of different solos, with an especially rousing one at about 1:32 into the song. Though this is one of his lesser-known tunes, it’s a fan-favorite and, in our opinion, deserves more of the limelight than it gets.
6. Sugar Mama Blues
“Bring me my granulated sugar, sugar mama, and try to ease my misery.” Not many singers can pull off a word like “granulated” in their songs but somehow, Sonny Boy does so flawlessly. He wrote this 12-bar blues slow-burn along with country artist Yank Rachell. The two often played together, and ‘Sugar Mama Blues’ is one of several collaborations. The song has turned into an authoritative composition over the years, with contemporary acts into the late ’60s, like Led Zeppelin reworking the track for their own repertoire. Suggestive lyrics focus on a main character who can’t get enough of his lover (“Sugar mama please come back to me”), and he is pining over her absence as the story plays out (“Don’t get my sugar three times a day, oh Lord, then I don’t feel right”).
5. Sloppy Drunk Blues
A lively interpretation by Sonny Boy Williamson, ‘Sloppy Drunk Blues’ was written by Lucille Bogan in 1930. This was quite a raucous release for the time, especially from a woman. Lyrics focus on hard partying and getting into quite a bit of trouble. The song’s main character is trying to get as inebriated as possible so she can forget that a “good man” left her. Bogan made a name for herself partly by focusing on taboo subject matter in her recordings. Many artists have released covers of this vintage party anthem over the years. Williamson released his version in 1941, his vibrant harmonica helping listeners conjure up images of bar room brawls and speakeasies as they take in the spunky tune.
4. Christmas Morning Blues
If the oversaturation of Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas’ gives you anxiety every December, try out a bluesy, downhome take on the holiday spirit with Williamson’s ‘Christmas Morning Blues.’ It’s understandable that most commercialized holiday tunes are cheery, but some prefer a more layered, nuanced approach to their yuletide playlists, and this number is a perfect fit. Appearing on a compilation album featuring all kinds of jazzy holiday-themed tracks from the 1920s to the 1950s called ‘Blues, Blues Christmas,’ this tune finds Sonny howling away on his harp, wishing Santa would bring him and his girl a little cheer for the first time in a while. Though the tune is technically a lamentation, it contains all the classic elements of the blues that leave you satisfied. Play Brenda Lee’s ‘Rocking Around the Christmas Tree’ after this one if you need some balance 😉
Recommended: Our playlist of great Christmas songs.
3. Rainy Day Blues
Williamson was a huge influence on pioneers of the Chicago blues movement that saw its heyday from the 1940s to the 1960s. Despite being a Tennessee man, and despite the Windy City’s electrified blues sound, Chicago blues heavyweights like Muddy Waters couldn’t get enough of Williamson’s acoustic stylings. The bluesman played the harmonica like no other, utilizing it as a solo instrument rather than a filler. You really get a feel for his range on the harp with ‘Rainy Day Blues,’ an unmistakable delta-inspired composition. Robert Johnson’s blues turnaround technique, which he perfected in the ’20s, is present throughout, giving the listener a subconscious roadmap for the laid-back track. Williamson elevates the formerly stripped-down delta sound with springy piano in the background. His vibrato dancing through his vocals gives even more of a nod to the blues music of the deep south.
Recommended: Our selection of the best of Muddy Waters.
2. Got The Bottle Up And Gone
A blues standard that is considered to be one of the 1930’s trademark pieces, ‘Got The Bottle Up and Gone’ is a must-study composition for any serious blues fan. A collection of several timeless compositions, Sonny Boy Williamson released his own high-spirited version in 1937. Other notable releases include delta blues artist Tommy McClennan in 1939. Williamson’s remains a standout from the rest. His harmonica wails during solos and imagery of fast cars and living a mile a minute to stay ahead of your problems is at the center of the fast-paced verses. This is a barn burner of a recording for its day. Listeners are compelled to think about just how rocking Williamson’s recordings would be with today’s advanced production equipment. His interpretation of this historic blues number is as important as the composition itself.
Recommended: Go deep into the genre with our pick of classic blues songs.
1. Good Morning School Girl
The catchy melody of this classic immediately draws you in as you listen to Sonny Boy’s original recording. He wastes no time jumping into the meat of the tune by going right into the chorus melody on his harmonica. Often considered now to be a blues standard, this important piece has changed hands many times, but Sonny was the first to release it way back in 1937. Fans of electric blues might have heard this track first from Muddy Waters, who put out a moody interpretation in ’64. While Muddy’s is haunting, Williamson’s is celebratory. Considered to be a historic work in the archive of blues music narrative, Sonny Boy’s recording was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1990 and comes in on our countdown at number 1.