This four-CD set is the perfect companion and complement to JSP's The Original Sonny Boy Williamson, Vol. 1, covering the blues harp legend's final eight years. John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson (aka Sonny Boy Williamson I) has, until fairly recently, been the odd man out in the story of Chicago blues stars, at least in terms of how history and posterity treated him. Having died in 1948, long before the significance of the blues or his work was recognized, he receded within the shadow cast by the older yet longer-lived name appropriator Sonny Boy Williamson II (aka Aleck Ford Miller), who got to record for Chess Records into the 1960s, and made it all the way to sessions with the likes of Eric Clapton and even a sadly never fulfilled intersection with the Band. The situation got even more frustrating for scholars when The New York Times, no less (known in the journalism trade as the newspaper of record), in a 1990s article about blues musicians being acknowledged with proper grave markers, obliterated any mention of the existence of John Lee Williamson in the course of telling of Miller/Williamson II's neglect. RCA's efforts at assembling John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson's music ended after two volumes and never got near the 1940s end of his output, and the only other effort to collect his work, by Document Records, was only available piecemeal, as hard to find imports. This set makes up for all of that, covering the man's output from beyond the point of his most well-known record and song, "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl."
Williamson had a decade of life beyond that point, and the 104 sides here -- assembling his own credited singles as well as his recordings backing such legends as Yank Rachell and Big Joe Williams -- are well worth hearing. The man's music grew in sophistication and complexity across the 1940s as his lyrical and musical facility advanced. Thus, what starts out as fairly rudimentary Chicago blues, as an outgrowth of Delta blues, soon begins to anticipate and intersect with what became the early Aristocrat and Chess Records sounds of Muddy Waters and Little Walter. You get to hear Williamson turn from typical blues subjects (i.e., women) to topical material about the Second World War, and also start to play off of harder guitar sounds as the '40s go on, and the recordings themselves evolve past the antique feel of those better-known early sides. The tendency, because he died so long ago -- 60-plus years at the time of this release -- is to hear his music as something out of another age, but by the fourth disc in this set you hear Williamson catching some of the same energy and vibe that Leonard Chess latched onto at just about the same time when he heard Walter and Muddy. And in terms of the names associated here, also along for the ride (and, at times, driving) are Big Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red, the ubiquitous Willie Dixon, and Big Maceo, Eddie Boyd, and Washboard Sam. (Indeed, on the basis of the sidemen alone, this set should be considered essential listening.) The sound quality ranges from very good to excellent, and the annotation by Neil Slaven is detailed and thorough, as is the accompanying discography.