HELENA, Ark. — Sonny Boy Williamson, a blues harmonica player, singer and songwriter from Mississippi, will be recognized with a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail tomorrow at 5 p.m. The unveiling will take place at 324 Phillips in Helena, Arkansas, a city in which Williamson lived and performed.
Helena was home to a flourishing blues scene that inspired Williamson and other legendary musicians from Mississippi, including Robert Johnson, Pinetop Perkins, Houston Stackhouse, James “Peck” Curtis and Honeyboy Edwards, to take up residence here in the 1930s and ‘40s. They and many others performed at a famous juke joint at this site called the Hole in the Wall. Williamson’s rise to fame began in Helena as the star of KFFA radio’s “King Biscuit Time.”
Williamson was born and laid to rest in Mississippi, and lived in Chicago, East St. Louis, Milwaukee, Detroit and numerous other locales, but Helena was the town he came to regard as home. He established himself as one of the premier blues performers in the Delta (on both the Arkansas and Mississippi sides) through his live appearances in cafes and clubs and his broadcasts on KFFA and other stations. His recordings, including the chart hits “Don’t Start Me Talkin’,” “Keep It to Yourself” and “Help Me,” brought him national recognition, and in the 1960s he played a key role in popularizing the blues in Europe and inspiring a host of British blues-rock musicians. In Europe Williamson confounded eager fans and reporters who besieged him with questions about his life. As he told fellow bluesman Willie Dixon, “It ain’t none of their business. They don’t even know me.” Genealogical research and family sources point to a likely birthdate of Dec. 5, 1912, under the name Alex Miller, but he also called himself Rice Miller, Willie Miller, Little Boy Blue, Reverend Blue and Willie Williams, among other monikers, and he gave birthdates as early as 1893. When he eventually took his stage name from another popular bluesman, John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, in the blues lexicon he became “Sonny Boy No. 2.”
Williamson had played in Helena even before he began performing on “King Biscuit Time” in 1941. He was joined by a succession of “King Biscuit Entertainers” — James “Peck” Curtis was a constant presence on the show, and others included Pinetop Perkins, Willie Love, Joe Willie Wilkins, Houston Stackhouse, Elmore James and W. C. Clay, all originally from Mississippi — as well as Robert Lockwood Jr., from Arkansas and Robert “Dudlow” Taylor from Louisiana. The band performed in surrounding towns to advertise King Biscuit Flour and Sonny Boy Corn Meal, and they also played locally at theaters and nightspots. Venues in Helena included the Owl Cafe, Busy Bee, Kitty Cat Cafe, Mississippi Cafe, Dreamland Cafe and Silver Moon, but the best-remembered juke joint was the Hole in the Wall, operated by another native Mississippian, James Oscar Crawford. Williamson and various band members, along with Willie Johnson, Doctor Ross, Hacksaw Harney, and Honeyboy Edwards were among those recalled at the Hole in the Wall. Rumors even circulated that Robert Johnson — another associate of Sonny Boy’s — was murdered while playing here, but his death actually occurred in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1938. During his extensive travels Williamson periodically revisited to Helena and returned for the final time in 1965, telling Stackhouse, “I done come home to die now.” On May 25 he failed to show for the KFFA broadcast and was found dead in the boardinghouse where he roomed at 427 1/2 Elm Street. His sisters buried him in Tutwiler, where fans often leave harmonicas and whiskey bottles on his grave.