Chris Strachwitz Remembers Sonny Boy Williamson
Chris Strachwitz reminisces in the interview, which is full of anecdotal gems, about being on European tours with Sonny Boy Williamson and Sunnyland Slim. “…it just was extraordinary. I remember one night I had knocked on… he was always rooming with Sunnyland Slim and I knocked on their door to see if they wanted to go down to dinner. And Sonny Boy opened the door and the whole place was just absolutely steamed up. And, you know, ‘Chris, we’re cooking the chicken right here in the coffee pot.’ They’d found the chicken someplace and were cooking it in the coffee pot, the electric one.”
“And [Sonny Boy] was a remarkable man. He just beat his way, all his life, pretty much by being an actor, so to speak by having fun with his audiences. And he thoroughly enjoyed being in Europe, as you’ve probably seen in some of the pictures. He had himself, a tailor made suit in England that is kind of gray and dark blue on different sides. And then the pants in the opposite direction were gray and blue in opposite ways. And he got himself one of those bowler hats that he thought the British high-class people were all wearing and he just had himself a ball. I don’t know how he survived. He didn’t really survive very much long after he returned back to Helena. That must have been a horrible, horrible culture shock. You know, when you’re adored by suddenly a whole lot of white people in another continent and here you are back again in segregated United States, which is supposed to be your country, you know?”
– Chris Strachwitz, from the interview
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Chris Strachwitz Interview Transcript:
Okay. Well, first of all, the first time I actually met Sonny Boy Williamson was in 1964 when I was hired by Horst Lippmann who was producing the American Folk Blues Festival in Europe, along with his partner Fritz Rau. And that was because the French promoters threatened not to take the program anymore unless they were able to get Lightnin’ Hopkins. And so he came to Houston and met me and Lightnin’ because he had heard that I got along with Lightnin’ real well and seemed to be a good friend of his. So when he came to Houston to meet us, of course, that was in very early I believe that was very, very early in 1964. We all met in Houston. Of course, that was the amazing trip. I drove down there and not only did I meet up with Horst Lippmann who hired me actually to accompany Lightnin’ because Lightnin’ would not travel on his own to Europe.
He said, he’ll go. But only if I were to go with him. Okay, well, on that same get together during that time, I also got introduced to Clifton Chenier by Lightnin’, which was an unbelievable, wonderful thing. And I think afterwards, I drove up into Mississippi and recorded Fred McDowell. So that was a kind of an amazing happening in early, early 1964. And then of course in the Fall when the American Folk Blues Festival was going to take place, that had been arranged by Horst Lippmann to fly us, -Lightnin’ and myself- leave from Houston to first fly to New York and then catch an Air India airliner, and a flight to Frankfurt where I will be met by the firm and by Horst, et cetera, et cetera. Well, so I was on that tour with Lightnin’. Of course, I had heard Sonny Boy Williamson’s records way back in the early fifties when they first came out on the Trumpet label and I was totally, totally knocked out “Nine Below Zero,” and “Eyesight to the Blind,” and all these very rhythmic things like, oh God, he had so many fantastic cuts. And I was very fond of him. But when I finally met him, I realized what an unbelievable character he was, you know? And I would try to hang out with him a little bit, but that was basically not really possible doing the tour, except I’ll never forget, I’m not sure if you can print this, but we were in Stockholm I think, or maybe it was in Denmark and we were all having breakfast and Sonny Boy came down and he was off to somewhere and we asked him, “Where are you going?” “Oh, I’m going out you know at them news papers, they want to talk to me.” And when he came back, we asked him, “What did you tell him?” “Oh, you know, how long my dick was and all that kind of stuff. That’s what they wanted to know.” I mean, the guy was just, I don’t think he ever said a true statement about where he came from and so on and so forth.
We should point out that we’re talking about the person who was generally called Sonny Boy Williamson II. Number two.
Well, he was not called that down there. And he always insisted that he was the original, that he was the older guy, which is probably true. Of course, I’m not sure if anybody can ever prove otherwise. On these tours, it just was extraordinary. I remember one night I had knocked on… he was always rooming with Sunnyland Slim and I knocked on their door to see if they wanted to go down to dinner. And Sonny Boy opened the door and the whole place was just absolutely steamed up. And, you know, “Chris, we’re cooking the chicken right here in the coffee pot.” They’d found the chicken someplace and were cooking it in the coffee pot, the electric one.
Oh, God, I mean, they were unbelievable characters. And, of course, they always had to have their whiskey and, oh God, one time, this is another kind of nasty story. I was sitting behind him in the seat behind those two. Behind Sonny Boy and Sunnyland Slim on the bus. This was in England, I think. And the bus would only stop very seldom, but these guys since they drank so much, they had to take pisses so they pissed in these bottles and I’ll never forget, one of them sitting next to the window suddenly opened the window and poured the goddamn bottle out the window. And I got the shower. Anyway, it was quite something and so I talked to him about it, I think already over in Europe and I’m not sure that I thought all those old records you made for Trumpet Records, they ought to be made available again.
And, of course he was ready to do anything. “Sure,” he said, “Yeah, yeah, I can give you those.” And so I went to Helena, Arkansas when I came back, I think it was from on a trip I was on the next year, I believe. And I went to Helena, Arkansas. And of course it wasn’t that easy to find out what, because Sonny Boy had a daily broadcast there on KFFA over that station in Helena. And so I found the Black section of town and I’ll never forget it. There was this Black man coming out of a beer joint with a guitar case in one hand. And of course I stopped and I asked him, “Would you know where Sonny Boy Williamson lives?” And he told me exactly where he lived and that he may have even taken me by there, I’m not sure.
But, of course, the biggest mistake I made was I should have asked him, “Aren’t you…” Who was that wonderful slide guitar player? Nighthawk! Nighthawk! Robert Nighthawk, the slide guitar player. And it did make sense later on when I thought about, but I didn’t know that and it only came to me afterwards that that is probably who it was and I blew it because why didn’t I ask him who he was? And I could’ve had a wonderful live session if I had my stupid head together, but I was so determined as to talk to Sonny Boy and see if I can make a contract with him for reissuing those trumpet records. And so I went up over to the radio station or even, I think he lived right behind it in a room. And anyway, I took that picture. I think it was right behind the radio station. And he had put Curtis on the drums and was it Houston Stackhouse, I think, was the guitar player and they were just getting ready to go to the radio broadcast and so I took those pictures.
So that’s behind the radio station?
Yeah. I believe so. It was in an alley, sort of a rural alley. I mean, there wasn’t really a… I don’t think the road was paved. My memory again is kind of vague there. And then I went with him to the station, up into the studio. So I went up there and they had one microphone that was for the radio broadcast where he was quite close to it and then the other guys were some distance away from it. And I hung my microphone at… Oh yeah, I did have a little microphone for this Uher I was using. I think that was the same year I recorded Eli Green and that Uher however, was not a particularly good model. It was a pretty primitive one. And so I hung my little microphone from that same stand that the big, huge radio broadcast microphone was hanging from. And so I picked up basically Sonny Boy and the guys. I did not pick up much of the announcer who was, of course in his booth and you could barely hear him except in the background. If you listened to that stuff I put out from that broadcast, I think I issued the whole thing. And then we made a deal and he signed it, of course. And of course that started all kinds of harangues because Mrs. McMurray was not too keen about what we did. I don’t think I realized that she was a very sharp lady and she was very much aware of the popularity of Sonny Boy Williamson. And she was also very much aware of the fact that she owned those masters and that I didn’t ask her. That was the only lawsuit ever filed against me. And I remember we finally settled out of court before it went into a big churrah. My attorney said, “Chris, you should just settle up with her.” And it was quite reasonable and I acquired legally all those masters that are like from the trumpet sessions, as well as the original recording of “Dust My Broom” by Elmore James and which we also put on there because Sonny Boy, I think plays on that record, I believe.
So that is really how all that happened. And I remember there were some, as we came out or even before we went in a Canadian band stopped and met us, I forgot. It was again behind the station. I think once we came out of there, yeah, here was this band from Canada. I forgot their names. They were some blues band, you know, they already had a bunch of Canadians who were crazy about playing blues and that they also had heard that Sonny Boy lives there and Helena, and I think they met him, but Sonny Boy Williamson was just one of those amazing, amazing personalities. I’ll never forget, also, I think it was in Frankfurt, the Chris Barber Band was playing someplace. He was of course a British trombonist who had a very well-known traditional jazz band. You see? And he had brought over several of American blues singers on his own actually prior to meeting some of the people in the American Folk Blues Festival.
And they had invited us to come and hear them play. And I’ll never forget. I was sitting at the table with Sonny Boy and some other people and Sonny Boy was almost asleep or something. And all of a sudden Chris Barber announced, “All right, and now we’re going to have Sonny Boy Williamson join us for a number and come on up here, Sonny Boy.” And he immediately was awake and jumped up there on the bandstand and started to play. And no, I think the band was already playing what they thought was one of his numbers. And except Sonny Boy had a harmonica in a different key and it was at a very different key but the Chris Barber Band immediately switched keys. It was really fantastic. I was really impressed by that. Oh, they immediately caught on and played in the same key that he was playing in.
And he was a remarkable man. He just beat his way, all his life, pretty much by being an actor, so to speak by having fun with his audiences. And he thoroughly enjoyed being in Europe, as you’ve probably seen in some of the pictures. He had himself, a tailor made suit in England that is kind of gray and dark blue on different sides. And then the pants in the opposite direction were gray and blue in opposite ways. And he got himself one of those bowler hats that he thought the British high-class people were all wearing and he just had himself a ball. I don’t know how he survived. He didn’t really survive very much long after he returned back to Helena. That must have been a horrible, horrible culture shock. You know, when you’re adored by suddenly a whole lot of white people in another continent and here you are back again in segregated United States, which is supposed to be your country, you know?
Yeah. This was in 1964.
I think it was probably in ’65 that I made the contract with him. I have a feeling.
He died in ’65.
Well, he died shortly thereafter. That’s true.
He died in May of ’65.
That is correct. And this was in early ’65 because that’s right. And that’s why Pat Curtis made that song about the deaths of Sonny Boy shortly thereafter which reissued on those records made by the other fellow that I licensed a bunch of Mississippi blues from, again, I can’t think of his name right now. It’s one of those bad things. And it was sort of a talking record and that was done by Pat Curtis, the drummer for Sonny Boy. That’s right. He didn’t live very much longer after that. Yeah.
I want to get back to that photo you took because it’s such a classic photo. So you knew that you were going to be putting out an LP of them and you asked them to set up there or?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. “I’d like to take a picture of you guys,” and of course he wanted them in it. And also we just came down from… I think this was after the radio broadcast and I’m not sure. Yeah. I’m pretty sure it was afterwards. And that’s when those characters from Canada, I think also appeared. And, of course, they were all ready to pose and that anybody was even caring about taking a picture of them, you know that was very unusual.
And because I mean, they set up the drums the guitar amp is there, it’s like they’re ready to play.
Yeah. Pat Curtis had his drums there, that’s right. Yeah. Yeah. It’s one of those amazing events that just Lady Luck had me covered. Yeah.