People who’ve heard Little Sonny’s albums, New King of the Blues Harmonica and Black and Blue on Enterprise Records (a division of the Stax Organization), are surprised to see him in person. From the funky music he plays, listeners expect an old, raggedy, hard-drinking stereotype of the typical down-and-out bluesman.
“I suppose some of the things I’ve been through should have driven me to drink,” admits the youthful, clean-cut Sonny, who doesn’t drink, smoke, or mess with dope. “I’ve seen too many bad examples of too much alcohol. Also, my mother was very religious, and I promised her I’d never drink. If I’ve got an audience, that’s all the alcohol I need. I couldn’t go onstage and do a good job if I were high.”
Little Sonny surprises many people, especially young blues fans, with his sober approach to the blues, but he’s just trying to be himself.
“The idea that a man has to use foul language, dress raggedy and bummy, and get into cuttin’ and shootin’ scrapes in order to sing the blues is just a sham. I feel what I sing and play because of the things I’ve been through. I’ve had my share of hard times, but that doesn’t give me an excuse to drink and swear and cut up.”
When Sonny plays his harmonica or sings the blues, all the rugged experiences he’s survived come out in his music.
Born in a one-room country shack in Greensboro, Alabama on October 6, 1932, he spent many of his younger days hungry and barefoot. He’s never seen his father. And he was looked after by his mother who made their clothes without the benefit of a sewing machine.
“The other kids used to laugh at me, but I made up my mind that I was going to be somebody regardless of what people thought. When I started playing music, people told me to my face that I’d never make it,” Sonny admits. “The blues is a living thing, and I have lived the blues. When I think of the unfair things that have happened to me because of the color of my skin, of all the times I’ve had to go in the back door, I know I’ve paid my dues.”
Sonny, who was born Aaron Willis, listened to the blues on the radio when he was a boy. His mother considered the blues “the old people’s way, something dirty,” but she bought her son five-cent harmonicas. Sonny tried to play them without much success.
Baseball was his main interest. He played on sandlot teams in Alabama for a few years before moving to Detroit seventeen years ago.
“I knew no baseball scout was going to see me as far back in the woods as I was. I didn’t really have aspirations of being a musician when I came to Detroit. But then, I saw Sonny Boy Williamson.”
Sonny was “spellbound at the way he played. After the show I went home and practiced for hours. Every day after that I would practice until I got the sound I wanted.”
Sonny Boy Williamson also inspired Aaron Willis to adopt the name Little Sonny. Working in a used car lot by day, Little Sonny would go from bar to bar at night making a little money taking pictures and hoping for a chance to sit in with the musicians onstage.
After sitting in with Washboard Willie at the Good Times Bar one evening, Sonny was offered ten dollars a night, three nights a week by the club owner. Within six months, Sonny formed his own group. During the years that followed, he worked five shows a night in many Detroit bars and clubs, packing the rooms every weekend. He spent two years at the Bank Bar, four and a half at the Congo Lounge, five years in the Apex Bar, and two years at the Calumet Show Bar. He still took Polaroid pictures of the customers between sets and often he earned more money from the photography than from entertaining. It was a rough grind, but he managed to make a living and eventually to buy a car and a home for his wife and four children.
Sonny has had some unpleasant experiences with small record companies over the years. He sent a homemade demo tape of “I Got to Find My Baby” to Duke Records in Texas. They sent him a contract and issued the rough tape. He never got near a recording studio. The musician’s union got him out of that one. All Sonny received for recording “Love Shock” with the JVB Recording Company was twenty-five dollars he borrowed from them. He started his own label Speedway and although he couldn’t get any airplay, he sold enough copies of “The Mix Up” in the clubs he worked to clear expenses.
Excello Records bought “Love Shock” from JVB and got Sonny’s name on a two-year contract. But they never recorded him, so he sat it out. “Orange Pineapple Cherry Blossom Pink” sold well for Wheelsville, USA Records, but Sonny was never paid. Then, Revilot Records expressed an interest and he cut “The Creeper.” It sold fairly well, but Sonny didn’t like the way the sound was mixed. He was in control of the next few sessions which produced “Don’t Ask Me No Questions” and “Sonny’s Bag,” his first Top Twenty hit in Detroit. From then on, things got better.
Late in 1969, Al Bell, executive vice president of the Stax Organization, offered Sonny his first opportunity to cut an album. New King of the Blues Harmonica,released on the Enterprise label, was recorded in five and a half hours. Sonny and his band knew all the songs so there were few retakes.
For his second album, Black and Blue, Sonny flew to the Stax studios in Memphis and recorded eleven sides in one weekend. It was the #1 blues album in Detroit and #3 on the local LP charts. Sonny has played several music festivals, he headlined two blues concerts at Wayne State University, he’s been written about in several books on the blues, and, in general, his reputation has been growing.
Sonny’s music has been called everything from blues to jazz, and some listeners detect spiritual and rock influences. He enjoys listening to and learning from all kinds of music.
“I’m working on my own ideas,” says Sonny, “not something the other man has already done. A lot of other blues musicians say I’m playing rock music because it’s up-tempo, and it’s a different style. They’ve never heard it before and they refuse to say it’s blues.
“Other harmonica players will play their part of a song then pause, then play again. Well, I’m constantly playing. I breathe in and out of the harmonica, and I fill in where other musicians would have a space,” says Sonny, who prefers an Old Standby 34B harmonica for its fast action and tone quality.
Little Sonny has been playing the blues for sixteen years. He’s had over a dozen singles and two albums. He’s received excellent reviews for his performances and recordings. But he knows that there’s still more territory to be covered before he can sit back and say he’s had that really big break.
“I’ll pay my dues until the day comes,” he says. “My time will come, and I’m going to work for it.”
That’s what the blues is all about.