Archive for the ‘Rock n Roll 1959 Part 3’ Category

by Robert Seoane




Two compilation albums were released in 1959, one by Sonny Boy Williamson and the other by Howlin’ Wolf, that pointed the direction to the real future of rock ‘n’ roll. Every other artist that had a hit in the Billboard Top Forty that year, every Number One single and album, had nothing on them. Decades from now, these charted pop hits would be listened to as a nostalgic trip to another era, but these blues musicians who didn’t chart any pop hits, barely made any money on their success and were relegated to the shadows, deemed lesser men because of the color of their skin, have made music that has remained vital and as beautiful to listen to today in 2015 as they were all those years ago.

1959 was a year of contrasts between the music of yesterday and the music of tomorrow.

Most emerging artists of the late Fifties and early Sixties were in the impending danger of extinction by 1964, when the Beatles were to arrive in the US with a sound that blew away everything from its musical path. Slowly but surely, most of the Fifties pop and rock ‘n’ roll stars would be doomed to suffer a sudden and fiery decline into obscurity after that fateful day on February 9 when the “Fab Four” made their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show to 70 million American viewers, at the time a historic record. The only few artists to survive the onslaught of new product from across the pond were older, established superstars like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. In fact, Martin knocked The Beatles’ seven-week debut chart topper “I Want To Hold Your Hand” off the Number One slot in the Spring of 1964 with his old-fashioned but still popular-among-the-parents hit, “Everybody Loves Somebody”. Sinatra still managed to top the charts or enter the Top Ten during the mid-Sixties with releases such as “That’s Life” and “Strangers In The Night”. The only other unstoppable force was Motown, delivering an assortment of R&B artists into the Top Forty that paralleled in popularity and quality of the music of the British Invasion. Indeed, rock ‘n’ roll was thriving in the Sixties for those who had their own sound. Anything that even remotely smacked of the previous decade was forgotten.



In 1959, rock ‘n’ roll was mostly comprised of either doo-wop groups, who weren’t really singing rock ‘n’ roll, or pop stars who sang songs with a rock ‘n’ roll beat. All the real rock ‘n’ roll stars had been sidelined. With Elvis in the Army, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper dead, Jerry Lee Lewis’ recording career destroyed for marrying his thirteen year old cousin and Little Richard renouncing the rock ‘n’ roll life for the ministry, the only true rock ‘n’ rollers left were Chuck Berry and Duane Eddy. Everyone else in 1959, although some were immensely talented, was made into pop stars by an industry desperately searching for the new Elvis. Neil Sedaka was singing about having a different girl every calendar year and wishing his sixteen-year-old girlfriend a happy birthday. Frankie Avalon was singing to the planet Venus to grant him his girlfriend’s love. The Platters were reviving an old standard, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, and turning it into a huge hit by making it sound contemporary, and the biggest hit of 1959 wasn’t even a rock ‘n’ roll song. It was a song from a 1930s German play called “The Threepenny Opera” that had been re-hauled into a dynamic jazz number called “Mack The Knife”, its definitive version sung by another up and coming pop star, Bobby Darin. “MTK” spent the last two and a half months of the Fifties in the Number One position, twelve weeks in a row, a sure sign that the rock ‘n’ roll music that had combusted so spontaneously five years earlier was flaming out.

But blues music was a different story. The blues are always only about the blues, usually as a lament for something that was lost, whether it be a lover or a job. The lyrics were often repeated in pairs, and the lament was usually backed by amazing musicianship where each note sounded like it came from the essence of their soul. It wasn’t just the dexterity of the playing but the persistence of the beat that fueled these songs and brought the listener into its musical ride and, if properly appreciated, irresistibly persuaded you to groove along.

Looking back at 1959 now, it’s obvious that the path rock ‘n’ roll was taking was a bleached, tamped down version of its original firepower. All the teen pop idols that surfaced during this period may have had talent and some of their songs were indeed very good, but it wasn’t the future. While the record labels were grooming them, promoting them and serving them to the pubescent teen market as The Next Big Thing, the real future of rock ‘n’ roll remained under the radar. Blues musicians such as Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley to name a handful, were playing and composing music that would greatly influence legendary rock groups and artists that include The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Animals, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Eric Clapton, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Ray Vaughan, George Thorogood, Jonny Lang, The Police and Sting.

The following is a collection of these amazing blues musicians’ songs that the megastars of 20th Century rock played, loved and emulated.

Sonny Boy Williamson made a lasting impact on rock ‘n’ roll as well as on the rock giants who admired his music. But in actuality, there were two musicians who called themselves Sonny Boy Williamson. Not because they were related at all, but because the second SBW took it upon himself to take the name. Blues purists refer to them today as I and II.



John Lee Curtis Williamson, born in Jackson, Tennessee in 1914, was the original Sonny Boy. Christened the father of modern blues harp, Williamson was the first to use the harmonica as a lead instrument for the blues. In 1934 he settled in Chicago and as a result, pioneered Chicago blues. At age 23 in 1937, he recorded his first single for Bluebird Records, called “Good Morning, Schoolgirl”. With the simple accompaniment of a harmonica and guitar, the song became popular among the black community and established his reputation as a master harp player right from the start.

A Texas bluesman by the name of Smokey Hogg released his own version of “Good Morning Schoolgirl”, adding a piano to the tune. His version made it into Billboard’s R&B chart at Number Five. Other blues artists like John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters and Junior Wells with Buddy Guy recorded their own versions of the song. For the most part, each of those recordings used similar, sparse instrumentation, but no white artist had ever touched the song until the British Yardbirds with Eric Clapton released it as a single in the UK in 1964. The Yardbirds’ version is a well-produced, well-played version revved up to the rock ‘n’ roll sound of the day, with more than a passing resemblance to the style of the Beatles.

Once the Yardbirds released the single, then a flood of white artists began to record it over the ensuing decades, including Paul Butterfield, the Grateful Dead, Jonny Lang, Huey Lewis and the News, Van Morrison, Paul Rodgers with Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart, Ten Years After, The Derek Trucks Band, Johnny Winter, and The Allman Brothers Band. Like so many other blues compositions redone by these and other legendary artists, they turned the blues into dynamic rock music.

SBW I continued to cut records for the next ten years, all of them just as well received as the previous release. In 1947, “Shake The Boogie” made it into Billboard’s “Race” chart (that was the name they called music from African Americans before Jerry Wexler coined the term rhythm and blues) and reached Number Four.

Sometime in the early 1940s, another musician by the name of Alex “Rice” Miller out of Mississippi started to also call himself Sonny Boy Williamson. The original Williamson was aware of this but did nothing, perhaps because SBW II confined himself to playing in the Mississippi region and didn’t release any recordings during SBW I’s lifetime. SBW I did confront SBW II personally once but not much was settled.

“Big Sonny Boy [Miller] chased Little Sonny Boy [Williamson] away from there. He couldn’t play with Rice. Rice Miller could play Sonny Boy’s stuff better than he could play it!” –Robert Lockwood, guitarist who witnessed the confrontation

On June 1, 1948, SBW I had completed a performance at the Plantation Club and was walking home. A block and a half away from the club, he unwittingly found himself in the middle of a robbery and took a bullet that killed him. He was 37 years old.



“Those British boys want to play the blues real bad, and they do”. – Sonny Boy Williamson II

Alex “Rice” Miller, nicknamed so because of his penchant for rice and milk as a child, was born in 1912, two years before John Williamson. Miller claimed to be born in 1899, perhaps as part of his conspiracy to own the original Sonny Boy’s name. His gravestone says he was born in 1908, but Dr. David Evans, professor of music at the University of Memphis, claimed to have found census records evidence claiming Miller to be eight years old in the year 1920.

Miller’s name change came about in 1941 when the sponsor of The King Biscuit radio show in which he performed regularly started to inexplicably refer to him as Sonny Boy Williamson.

His career began back in the 1930s when he toured and played in his home state of Mississippi and Arkansas. During his travels, he met and played with two other blues greats that would form the foundation of Mississippi blues as it’s known today, Elmore James and Robert Johnson. It was a tightly knit group; his sister was even married to Howlin’ Wolf. During those years, SBW II developed his onstage persona and entertained the audience with his banter and his abilities on the harmonica. Miller was indeed a master bluesman and incredibly talented, able to play harmonica by inserting it halfway into his mouth and not using his hands.

“Sonny Boy Williamson is the Jimi Hendrix of the Blues Harp.” John Mayall

“If you are gonna play a note, play the hell out of that goddamn note! You can take one note and upset a house. Play that damn note; don’t let the note play you.”- Sonny Boy Williamson II to Little Sonny in Detroit MI in 1955 (as reported in Living Blues Issue #207)

In 1941, SBW II started playing for “King Biscuit Time” a radio show out of Helena, Arkansas, where he garnered local fame for his performances. As his reputation grew and indeed became a superior musician over the original SBW I, Miller had no recording contract and continued to play locally. It wasn’t until SBW I’s murder in 1948 that Miller’s star began to ascend. He signed with Trumpet Records in 1951, calling himself “the one and only Sonny Boy Williamson”. By 1953, he was part of Elmore James’ band, and after the label folded in 1955, Miller’s contract was taken by the label’s creditors and sold to Checker Records, a subsidiary of Chess. It was then that Miller began recording his own compositions. His records made it to the United Kingdom and ignited a blues craze. There, in contrast to his home country, he became a huge star and hero to many young, future musicians like Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton.

SBW II’s first LP, “Down & Out Blues”, was released in 1959. Consisting of songs he had recorded during that decade, the record’s grooves contained the future of rock ‘n’ roll. Muddy Waters, Otis Spann and legendary songwriter Willie Dixon backed him up on many of these recordings.

In direct contrast to the happy, bright, white young faces adorning pop releases of the day, the “Down & Out Blues” album cover showed a black homeless man laying down on the street, conveying a gritty reality nowhere to be found in 1959 rock ‘n’ roll.


“Don’t Start Me To Talkin” was the new Sonny Boy’s first single and his biggest hit, climbing up to Number Three in Billboard’s R&B chart after its September 1955 release. It’s a standard blues song, essentially a blueprint of how the blues should be played and sung, and a quality recording. Over the years it was re-recorded and played by Dion, the Yardbirds, Bob Dylan, The Doobie Brothers and The New York Dolls to name a few. Each version by these artists shows a tremendous love and appreciation for the song, sung with an energy and exuberance that betrays the joy felt in all these musicians’ souls for the blues.


The second track on “Down & Out Blues” was originally released as the flip side of the “Fattenin’ Frogs for Snakes” 45rpm record released on February 6, 1957. It’s another classic blues song filled with wit and carried on by a wicked beat. The lyrics also reaffirm Miller’s constant need to tell everyone he is Sonny Boy Williamson.

“At eleven forty-five the phone began to ring, I heard someone say Sonny Boy and I know that was my name, who call you? I don`t know, I don`t know, but I`m trying to get in touch my baby to find out why she disappoint me so.” – “I Don’t Know” – Sonny Boy Williamson

Every track of the album is a classic and more than worth a listen, with lyrics that had nothing to do with innocent love. Quite the contrary, each tune had a different way of conveying the jealousy and trials of falling in love and was filled with humorous and original perspectives that just couldn’t be found in 1959 mainstream rock ‘n’ roll.


The song that opens Side Two is about a repentant man who uses the analogy of feeding amphibians to reptiles with the bad choices he made in his lifetime.

“Whoa man, nineteen and fifty-seven, I’ve got to correct all of my mistakes, I’m tellin’ my friends includin’ my wife and everybody else, not fattenin’ no more frogs for snakes” – Fattenin’ Frogs for Snakes – Sonny Boy Williamson


“Your Funeral and My Trial”, recorded in March 1958, was a song about jealousy with lyrics that once again put a spin on the green-eyed monster by implying a violent end for his girlfriend if he continues her philandering ways.

Please come home to your daddy, and explain yourself to me, because I and you are man and wife, tryin’ to start a family, I’m beggin’ you baby, cut out that off the wall jive, If you can’t treat me no better, it gotta be your funeral and my trial.” – Your Funeral and My Trial – Sonny Boy Williamson

Sonny Boy Williamson didn’t just influence rock ‘n’ roll musically, he also inspired legendary artists with his lyrics as well. When John Lennon was with the Beatles, he wrote several songs that dealt with jealousy and veiled threats of violence in retribution for disloyalty much like Dixon’s “Your Funeral and My Trial” in theme. As the years progressed, Lennon’s lyrics also became more honest and even a little confessional.

“That boy took my love away, Oh, he’ll regret it someday, but this boy wants you back again.” – This Boy – The Beatles

“Well I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man, you better keep your head, little girl or I won’t know where I am, you better run for your life if you can, little girl, hide your head in the sand little girl, catch you with another man, that’s the end, little girl.” – Run For Your Life – The Beatles

“I used to be cruel to my woman I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved. Man, I was mean but I’m changing my scene and I’m doing the best that I can…” Getting Better – The Beatles

The remaining songs on SBW II’s album, such as “Cross My Heart”, don’t let up in quality and feeling. In 2007, the album was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.

SBW II continued releasing singles between 1960 and 1965, each of them classic blues songs that were aurally devoured by the future leaders of Sixties rock. Other notable songs include “Little Village”, a recording prefaced with hilariously obscene banter between Sonny Boy and his producer Leonard Chess.


The lyrics to “Eyesight To The Blind”, written and recorded by SBW II in 1951, were used by The Who in their own version of “Eyesight…” in their groundbreaking 1969 album “Tommy”.

In 1975, the Who released “Tommy” as a film where Eric Clapton was showcased as a preacher performing SBW II’s “Eyesight to the Blind” in a bizarre scene filmed in St. Andrews Church in Southsea, England, where paraplegics were being taken to touch a large statue of Marilyn Monroe in the hopes of being “saved”, while a crazed priest (Arthur Brown) baptizes everyone with pills and liquor. That’s rock ‘n’ roll for ya.


Yet another song with lyrics that put a humorous slant on being left by a woman, this time in the dead of winter, is “Nine Below Zero”. The title of the song was later taken to be used by the rock group of the same name.

“Yeah, ain’t that a pity people, ain’t that a cryin’ shame, ain’t that a pity, I declare it’s a cryin’ shame, she wait till it got nine below zero, and put me down for another man.” – Nine Below Zero – Sonny Boy Williamson

SBW II toured Europe in the early Sixties when the United Kingdom was still in the clutches of a blues craze and even recorded with the Yardbirds and the Animals. Recorded live at the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond, Surrey on December 8, 1963, SBW II and the Yardbirds with Eric Clapton on lead guitar created a classic blues album.

That same month of December in 1963, Williamson recorded eleven live tracks with the Animals that were subsequently released over the years among various rock compilation albums. One of the highlights is their rendition of Willie Dixon’s “My Babe”.

Sonny Boy Williamson II’s penchant for lying and twisting the truth backfired on him when he returned to the States because none of his friends believed he went to Europe, although he had completely changed his wardrobe style due to British influence, opting for a suit complete with bowler hat and umbrella.


“Help Me”, released in 1963 and climbing up to Number 23 in the Billboard R&B chart, is the only song SBW II released that he didn’t write the music for, taking the melody from a rock ‘n’ roll song that had been released in 1960 called “Green Onions” by Booker T and the MGs. Willie Dixon is also credited along with SBW II in the song.


“Checkin’ Up On My Baby” has been called “the most accomplished masterpiece of the postwar blues” and is a favorite of the Rolling Stones, having been performed more than once by Mick Jagger and a long list of others.

Upon SBW II’s return from Europe, he resumed playing on the “King Biscuit Time” radio show. On May 25, 1965, he was late for work, a very unusual occurrence for him. Fellow musician Peck Curtis had been waiting for his arrival along with his backup musicians and decided to go to his rooming house to see why he was delayed. He found him lifeless on his bed from a heart attack. Alex Miller aka Sonny Boy Williamson was 53 years old.



A compilation album was released in 1959 that contained a decade’s worth of blues recordings by an artist who essentially was one of the architects of rock ‘n’ roll.

Chester Arthur Burnett, named after the 21st President of the United States Chester A. Arthur and better known by his stage name, Howlin’ Wolf, nicknamed ‘Wolf’ as a child by his grandfather for his brusque behavior, was a blues singer, guitarist and harmonica player born in White Station, Mississippi in 1910.

This collection of a dozen songs that made up the contents of the compilation album “Moanin’At Midnight” and released in August of 1959, captured the essence of blues, and served as an aural barometer of how far the current rock ‘n’ roll sound had drifted from its roots. The rock ‘n’ roll songs of 1959 had the beat and used the proper instrumentation, but one by one, those popular artists of the time all sold out. As Madison Avenue exploited the genre and The Establishment was successfully taming and molding the beast called rock ‘n’ roll into an acceptable product that would be palatable and safe for the whole family, both institutions capitalized on the sound in the same cynical way. They packaged and sold it to a young, eager market after successfully cutting its balls off. The music’s soul and smoldering sexuality had been replaced by ditties with clever lyrics and a rock ‘n’ roll beat.

Chester Burnett had a rough childhood. His mother Gertrude, a street singer who sold gospel songs for a living, disowned him for playing “the devil’s music”. After his parents separated and his father moved away to the Mississippi Delta, little Chester lived with his uncle Will Young, a preacher and strict disciplinarian who was “the meanest man between here and Hell” according to a childhood friend of Burnett’s. Chester ultimately ran away from his mother and his maternal family when he was 13, and walked barefoot eighty-five miles according to him, until he got to his father’s home, who gladly took the young boy in.

Burnett grew up with a keen interest in blues music, especially after his father bought him his first guitar at age 18, and he became personally acquainted with the incredibly talented blues musicians that played in and around the Mississippi Delta where he lived. He met the first great blues star, Charley Patton at around that time. Patton was a major influence in his musical style, as was Sonny Boy Williamson II and other talented Mississippi bluesmen of that region. Patton taught Burnett how to play guitar. Burnett taught himself how to play the harmonica.

Throughout the Thirties, Burnett spent his time performing solo gigs as well as with a variety of Southern blues musicians. In 1941, he was drafted into the Army. When he was discharged two years later, he resumed his blues career. In 1948, he formed a group called The House Rockers with pianist Bill Johnson, lead guitarist Willie Johnson, and drummer Willie Steele. Other musicians that would join the group were harmonica players James Cotton and Little Junior Parker as well as Ike Turner on piano. A local radio station in Memphis started to broadcast their live performances. At one point, Ike Turner brought Burnett to the attention of Sam Phillips, the man who would discover Elvis. Sam recorded Howlin’ Wolf at his Memphis Recording Service in 1951.


Howlin’ Wolf’s very first recordings with Sam Phillips along with other blues classics are contained in the “Moanin’ In The Moonlight” compilation album. All of the songs in the compilation have an undeniable groove that essentially defined rock ‘n’ roll. Several of these compositions have gone on to be played by the Rolling Stones, The Doors, The Grateful Dead, Little Feat, the Yardbirds and Cream. It’s ironic that Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Willie Dixon and many other American artists would not be properly recognized in their own country until British rock artists came all the way from across the Atlantic Ocean, to come here and play it for us.


“Moanin’ At Midnight” opens with his humming and distinctive howling, backed by a plucky guitar and accompanied after a while with his harmonica, blowing out a chugging rhythm that proceeds to flow smoothly through the song. Howlin’ Wolf sings as though he’s being choked; his lower range was more of a growl and it ultimately became his trademark. Although “MAM” was recorded in 1951, it didn’t become an R&B national hit until 1957.

The opening cut from Howlin’ Wolf’s “Moaning In The Moonlight” collection was the first song recorded by Sam Phillips at his Memphis Recording Service and distributed through Chess Records in 1951. Sam Phillips and the Chess Brothers, Phil, and Leonard, had a contractual agreement to work in conjunction with recording and distributing R&B music.

The B-side to the Chess Records release of “Moanin’…” was “How Many More Years” and the second track on the album. This song is one of a handful of tunes Howlin’ Wolf recorded that has been played many times by the aforementioned rock supergroups of the Sixties.

The next track on the collection was “Smokestack Lightnin’” a song Howlin’ Wolf wrote and has been playing since the early days of the 1930s. It’s one of Howlin’ Wolf’s most famous, having been a staple song during the live concerts of the Yardbirds, Manfred Mann, The Animals, The Who, The Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service and The Wailers. The song has also been performed and/or recorded by Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, John Lee Hooker, John Mayer, Soundgarden, George Thorogood, Aerosmith, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Creedence Clearwater Revival among others.

“We used to sit out in the country and see the trains go by, watch the sparks come out of the smokestack. That was smokestack lightning.” – Chester ‘Howlin’ Wolf’ Burnett

“Ah-oh, smokestack lightnin’, shinin’, just like gold, why don’t ya hear me cryin’? A-whoo-hooo, oooo whooo… Whoa-oh, tell me, baby, what’s the matter with you? Why don’t ya hear me cryin’? Whoo-hooo, whoo-hooo whooo…” Smokestack Lightnin’ – Howlin’ Wolf

The song was written and recorded in 1956 after Wolf moved to Chicago and signed exclusively to Chess Records.

The Yardbirds were known for being blues purists, and besides “Smokestack Lightnin'” they recorded many other blues compositions including Tiny Bradshaw’s “Train Kept A-Rollin'”(1951) with Jeff Beck on guitar and Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man”(1955), where guitarist Jimmy Page uses a violin bow.

Side One of “Moanin’ At The Moonlight” closes with a great song called “All Night Boogie”. It’s a fast bluesy romp with more than a passing similarity to Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll”(1954) that shows off the Wolf’s virtuosity on the mouth harp and pre-dated scores of honky-tonk rock ‘n’ roll songs of the Sixties and Seventies.

The other notable song in the album collection is “Evil”, written by Willie Dixon. Dixon played double-bass on this recording, produced in 1954. It’s a classic song for rock ‘n’ roll, singing about the dangers of evil lurking in “your happy home” when you’re not around and the little lady is all alone to fool around with another man. This was just the kind of topic the Establishment frowned upon, even though the song may have had a point. But if the blues and country music were the parents of rock ‘n’ roll, the blues was the genre’s mother, because it instilled in the music its ability to sing from the heart no matter how painful or embarrassing the topic may be.

“You make it to your house, knock on the front door, run ’round to the back; you’ll catch him just before he goes. That’s evil, evil is going on. I have warned you brother, you better watch your happy home.” “Evil” – Howlin’ Wolf