Sonny Boy Williamson II – Harmonica King

Sonny II - Keep It To Your Self

Help Me
Bye Bye Birdie
Fattenin Frogs for Snakes

I can remember hearing Help Me by Sonny Boy Williamson II for the very first time as I was descending the stairs down in the cellar of Manchester’s Twisted Wheel Club in September 1963. For the first time, a moment of dark, dank pleasure mixed with that fantastic staccato beat :

you gotta help me babe
I can’t do it all by myself
you gotta help me baby
I can’t do it all by myself
you know if you don’t help me darlin
I’ll have to do it all by myself

This was followed by one of the most haunting harmonica solos ever played. It was a track that still got played sometimes at the Wheel even as late as 1969 and certainly more often at the Blue Note.

Sonny Boy Williamson was the second ‘Sonny Boy’ but he was old enough to have played with Robert Johnson – or was he? It was a great moment for me when I bought him a cup of coffee in the Twisted Wheel on Christmas Eve 1964 after he finished his set. He had the bowler hat and the Black and white Checkered suit (Checker Records bought it for him, he told me). He showed me his smallest harmonica in the world, which he had just played with his nose but I didn’t take it from him for a close look! I remember a girl near the stage saying ‘he’s a dirty old man – playing his harmonica up his nose’ – not to everyone’s taste.

Sonny Boy Williamson at The Twisted Wheel

He appeared several times at the Twisted Wheel club in Manchester and it was Roger Eagle the DJ at the club who organised his booking. Roger often played Help Me back to back with Howlin’ Wolf’s Smokestack Lightnin’ and they became coupled in my memories.

We saw Sonny Boy Williamson at The Twisted Wheel on:

Saturday February 15th

December 26 Boxing Day 1964 second appearance (backed by Spencer Davis Group).

Among our favourite Sonny Boy songs were:

Help Me,

Your funeral and my Trial,

Fattening Frogs for Snakes,

Bye Bye Birdie.

These tracks were regularly played by Roger Eagle at the Wheel in 1964/65. Sonny Boy appeared also at the Manchester Free Trade Hall and on Granada TV around the same period. The full interesting and funny story of it all is recounted in the book: SIT DOWN! LISTEN TO THIS The Roger Eagle Story by Bill Sykes.

Sonny Boy Williamson - in The Twisted Wheel Manchester
Sonny Boy Williamson – in The Twisted Wheel Manchester – photo courtesy of Brian Smith

We owe a great deal to Roger Eagle who tutored us in appreciation of Black American Blues & Soul artists in the sixties.

Sonny Boy had a bag full of harmonicas, from very tiny to large. He made sounds and bent notes so amazingly. After seeing him many of my pals tried to get (Honer/Marine- Band) harmonica to sound like that, we even bashed them with hammers to distort them, tried putting them in buckets of water  but nothing really got that Sonny Boy sound.

When he died in 1965, Roger Eagle put an obituary in his R&B Scene magazine titled: ‘He Died With His Boots On’. He died in a hotel in his sleep of a heart attack, presumably with his boots on.

Sonny Boy -In - Manchester 1963
Sonny Boy at Roger Eagle’s flat: Roger is behind the Harmonica Man: Pic from the Book: Sit Down! Listen To This.

Sonny Boy Williamson – Wikipedia

Sonny Boy Williamson II

Born: ?Possibly 1912

Died: May 24, 1965