Thursday, January 6, 2011

Little Sonny -- King of the Blues Harmonica

Little Sonny

Aaron “Little Sonny” Willis was raised in a single parent home by his mother and grandmother in tiny rural Cassimore, Ala. When he and his wife Maggie started their own family, he was determined to provide his children with the positive male role model he never had the opportunity to experience.
Little Sonny always put his family first, even if it cost him an occasional booking. He and his wife Maggie raised four children in the Detroit home he has lived in for 41 years. Two of Little Sonny’s children – Aaron Willis Jr. (guitar) and Anthony Willis (bass) – now perform in the band with their father.
Little Sonny learned his life philosophy from his mother, Elmira Willis, and grandmother, Elizabeth Rainer, a midwife of at least partial American Indian heritage who delivered Little Sonny on Oct. 6, 1932.
“They were my foundation,” Little Sonny said during an interview at his Detroit home Jan. 4, 2011. “They were the two people who instilled in me who I am. It all comes from a supreme being first, and then to them and to me. It’s been instilled into you like a camera. All you have to do is put it in focus. My mother always told me, ‘Son Boy, it don’t cost nothing to smile.’ I always try to keep a good attitude.
“My mother always taught me, ‘You just do what you have to do in life. Do good work and the work will stand for you.’ She told me, ‘A good person is a good person, and you judge them that way, not by the color of their skin. You judge them by the content of their character.’ ”
It was Little Sonny’s mother who helped start him off on his career, by purchasing a five-cent toy plastic harmonica as a Christmas present for the child she affectionately called “Son Boy.” He used to listen to the Grand Ol’ Opry on the radio and tried to copy the stylings of harmonica player DeFord Bailey, who Little Sonny assumed was white. He only learned later that Bailey was a black man.
“I started listening to him and started practicing the tone quality and the things that he was doing,” Little Sonny said. “I was playing harmonica, but baseball is what I wanted to do. I used to play shortstop. I played baseball ALL the time. I kept the harmonica, just to play for myself.”
He moved to Tuscaloosa and bought a Marine Band harmonica, always keeping it in his pocket, but still playing just for fun.
After moving to Detroit, Little Sonny changed his career focus when he discovered the money that could be made as a musician. He realized his earning potential after watching Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) perform at a Detroit nightclub.
“He’s the guy who really inspired me” to play professionally. “When I saw this guy playing and making money at it, I thought, ‘Hey, if this guy can do it, I can do it.’ ”
Little Sonny worked at a used car lot during the day and augmented his earnings by taking Polaroid photos and selling them to nightclub patrons in the evenings. He started his own performing career by filling in with bands led by Eddie Burns and Washboard Willie, although at first he knew only one song, “I’m a Man,” by Bo Diddley. Eventually, a club owner offered Sonny a gig with the band Washboard Willie and His Super Suds of Rhythm, paying $10 a night three days a week -- big money in those days.
After a falling out with Washboard Willie over money, bandmates Mr. Bo (guitar) and Charles “Chuck” Smith (piano) convinced Little Sonny that he could be a bandleader on his own. The three young musicians all left Washboard Willie’s group, and, along with drummer Jim Due, formed a group that became known as Little Sonny and the Rhythm Rockers.
“That taught me to treat musicians fair,” Little Sonny said. “He made a mistake and I learned from it.”
Little Sonny, left, and John Lee Hooker are pictured in front of Joe's Record Shop at 3530 Hastings Street in Detroit in 1959.  Joe's, which was run by Joe Von Battle, included a recording studio with releases on JVB, Von and Battle labels. 
Over the years, Little Sonny played or appeared on bills with many blues legends, including John Lee Hooker, Little Walter, and Howlin’ Wolf. A poster from Little Sonny’s extensive collection (he saves everything) describes a “Battle of the Blues” with B.B. King and Little Sonny on Monday Sept. 7, 1959 at Prince Hall, at Gratiot and MacDougall in Detroit. He also recorded several LPs, including three released on Enterprise/Stax during the early 1970s (“Black & Blue” featured backing by the Bar-Kays), and toured and played at festivals (including the 1972 Ann Arbor Jazz and Blues Festival, which was recorded live), but he did most of his work playing nightclubs in the Detroit area, so that he could return home to his family each night. Little Sonny always tried to treat his band members right. As a consequence, his backup musicians included many of Detroit’s top session musicians, including legendary bassist James Jamerson and guitarist Eddie Willis of Motown’s Funk Brothers fame.
Little Sonny, now 78, has been semi-retired for years, following the death of his beloved wife 16 years ago. He last performed in public two years ago at a tribute to his longtime friend Eddie Burns, who is ailing.
Little Sonny headlines Friday on the first night of the two-day Anti-Freeze Blues Festival at the Magic Bag in Ferndale. Also on the bill will be Mr. B, Bill Kirchen and Detroit’s Queen of the Blues, singer Alberta Adams, with RJ & the Rhythm Rockers and special guest guitarist Jeff Grand. Saturday’s lineup includes The Blasters, Laith Al Saadi, Motor City Josh and Black Beauty. Tickets are $25. Proceeds benefit the Detroit Blues Society. For more information, call (248) 544-3030 or click


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