Unlike the older Delta bluesman who borrowed his name, John Lee Williamson made his mark on the blues before World War II.
Born March 30, 1914, in Jackson, Tenn., Williamson mastered the blues harp as a teenager before settling in Chicago in 1934. By 1937 he had signed to Victor and immediately began recording such hits as "Good Morning Little School Girl" and "Blue Bird Blues" (RealAudio excerpt). Williamson made more than 100 recordings over the next 10 years, with enormous influence. Many of the songs became blues standards, and his style of alternating vocals with blasts on the harmonica was adopted by nearly everyone who followed.
Williamson was brutally slain at the age of 34 in a street robbery on Chicago's South Side. Shortly after his death, "Better Cut That Out," his last recording, became a national hit. Another bluesman, Rice Miller, also became known as Sonny Boy Williamson when a sponsor of his radio show thought the name would add to the show's success. He kept the name, and through the '50s Sonny Boy Williamson II achieved even greater fame than his namesake.
Other birthdays Thursday: Tracy Chapman, 36; and Eric Clapton, 55.