Blues Collector: Sonny Boy Williamson

Sonny Boy Williamson

RCA 75.722, Released 1962, Value £5-£10

Fifty years ago, before there was a distinct blues audience, the easiest way for a record company to infiltrate its catalogue with blues was to pretend it was jazz. Or, if not jazz exactly, a precursor of it, meriting the attention of the serious jazz enthusiast. In France, a jazz record shop owner named Bert Bradfield, working for the Paris office of RCA and drawing on the vast archives of Victor and Bluebird, created a series of EPs and 10-inch LPs titled Treasury of Jazz.

The first 20 or so reissues were mostly early New Orleans and Chicago jazz – Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong. Then, in 1962, possibly detecting faint underground rumblings of a new blues interest, Bradfield sharpened his blues focus, and EPs of hitherto impossible-to-find music began to tumble into the grateful hands of fans: Big Joe Williams, Sleepy John Estes, Leroy Carr, Robert Petway…

The first rock in this small avalanche was an EP by Sonny Boy Williamson – John Lee, the original name-holder – and consisted of his first four recordings, made in 1937 with ‘two unknown guitars’ that we now know were Joe Williams and Robert Lee McCoy. The first track, Good Morning School Girl, would be the hit of his life, but all of this music was quietly revolutionary, introducing a blues harmonica style that would fire successors like Little Walter and those who followed.