Ever since he moved to Detroit from his native Alabama in 1953, singer-harmonica player Little Sonny has been among Detroit’s elite blues performers. The man who got his start with Washboard Willie and His Super Suds of Rhythm, and who was friends and performed with late blues luminaries such as John Lee Hooker and Eddie Burns, is 81 now, still spry, but no longer touring.
Little Sonny feels he still has one more album in him. Until that happens, we have another gem to enjoy.
Little Sonny’s “The Best Love I Ever Had” (Glynn Record Company), originally released in Japan in 1995, has recently been released to the U.S. market.
The CD features Little Sonny’s trademark blues that blend in a bit of funk and Southern soul. Recorded when he was in his early 60s, the CD finds Little Sonny in fine vocal form, especially on the title track “The Best Love I Ever Had,” where he pleads to be “used” by his woman with a strong voice reminiscent of great Stax/Volt artists such as Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. This is no surprise, as Little Sonny recorded a trio of albums (“New King of the Blues Harmonica,” “Black & Blue” and “Hard Goin’ Up”) for Stax or subsidiary labels. Still, Little Sonny’s vibrato laced voice is unique.
A funky harp riff kicks off “The End of Your Rope,” in which Little Sonny tells his woman “if I give you enough rope, I’m sure you’ll hang yourself.” It is one of several songs on the recording, including “When Love Begins Friendship Ends” (featuring Don Whyte on soulful tenor sax) and “Love Mechanic,” that demonstrate Little Sonny’s prowess as a songwriter and ability to turn a clever phrase.
Little Sonny wrote seven of the 10 songs on the album, including “Watching the Peoples” that advises you to “watch the people and not what they say.”
Donny Hathaway’s Latin jazz flavored instrumental “The Ghetto” gets a funky treatment here. Two other instrumentals, “Jam” and “Harmonica Funk Blues,” were penned by Little Sonny’s sons Aaron Willis Jr. and Anthony Willis, who perform on guitar and bass, respectively. These songs provide an opportunity for Little Sonny and his sons to stretch out and display their considerable chops. Guitar work by Aaron Jr. (The Dramatics, Bobby Womack) is also featured on “I’ll Never Trust You Again,” while Anthony sets the pace on bass on “Outer Funk.”
Little Sonny’s band on this CD also included keyboard player Rudy Robinson, well known as a performer and arranger for many soul stars until his death in 2002 at age 61, and Dwayne “Butch” Lomax and Curtis Sharp on drums.
Little Sonny is a perfectionist and this studio album, released as a tribute to his late wife Maggie Willis, demonstrates his considerable prowess as a musician, songwriter and arranger.
It also provides an opportunity to check out Little Sonny’s funky, soulful blues on a recording that is receiving long overdue exposure to a wider audience.
To order the CD “The Best Love I Ever Had,” mail a money order for $15 (includes shipping and handling) to Glynn Enterprises, 18648 Fleming, Detroit, MI 48234-1309.
To read more on Little Sonny, click here.
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