In many ways this blues great ticks all the boxes of a true legend of the magical tradition that the blues has left us all to enjoy.
His birth date is not known, either 1897 or 1909. How he spent his childhood is not known. Even his real name is open to speculation. His first name could have been Alec or Alex or Willie. His surname could have been Miller or Ford. He was by nature suspicious, moody, and bitter, a far cry from the man whose name he took, the original Sonny Boy Williams. One thing that he did share with his name sake was a talent for playing the harmonica.
By the 30s he was travelling the Delta playing with other blues greats. He played at juke joints and house parties with Robert Johnson, Robert Nighthawk, and Elmore James. By the 40s he was the star of "King Biscuit Time" the very first live radio blues show. In an effort to sell more King Biscuit Flour the sponsors decided that Rice Miller should change his name. Why not pose as Sonny Boy Williamson? It would be unthinkable today, the ruse would be spotted immediately but then it was different, and it worked. Sales went up and when the original Sonny Boy was murdered there was no competition for the name.
A local radio star his recording career started relatively late. Typically, he later claimed that he had recorded in the 30s but no trace of those recordings (if the existed) have been found. In any event, Lillian McMurray traced him down and persuaded him to record. He recorded for her label Trumpet records between 1951 and 1954 making a big impression with his very first release "Eyesight to the Blind". The recordings for Trumpet remain classics in spite of the basic recording techniques.
From Trumpet, Sonny Boy Williamson II moved to Chess in Chicago. At Chess he was reunited with Robert Lockwood who had played with him on the radio and many classic recordings followed. In 1963 he toured Europe for the first time. Europe, particularly the UK, could not get enough of the blues and Sonny Boy found himself playing to rapturous white audiences. He enjoyed the experience so much that he remained behind at the end of the tour. Like other blues artists he found the lack of racism and acceptance of his music to his liking.
In 1965 he returned to the States. It was as if he was going home to die and toured some of the old places in the Delta, playing and meeting up with old friends. He died in his bed of a heart attack on 25th May 1965.
Whoever he was and whenever he was born, Sonny Boy Williamson II left music a richer place than when he started on his hobo career.