If the confusion caused by John Lee Williamson and Rice Miller both using the name ‘Sonny Boy’ wasn’t enough, there were at least FIVE guys using the tag ‘Little Sonny’. Little Sonny Warner was a Gospel-Blues singer from Virginia who had a hit in 1959 with ‘Something On Your Mind’; Little Sonny Jones was a New Orleans singer who often opened shows and made records with his childhood friend Fats Domino; Little Sonny Wimberley sang ‘Funky Broadway’ in 1968, and Little Sonny Parker sang ‘Love is Got Me Down’ in 1970, both for the Spivey Records label. However, the most successful ‘Little Sonny’ was a harp player from Alabama who was a big noise in Detroit a while ago, and is still around today.
Aaron Willis was born in Greensville AL in 1932 and was always called ‘Little Sonny’ by his mother. He moved to Detroit when he was 20, hoping to make it as a baseball player, but when he saw Rice ‘Sonny Boy II’ Miller playing harp, his priorities changed. Sonny started getting gigs blowing a harp around the Detroit clubs, where he played with John Lee Hooker, Washboard Willie and Eddie ‘Guitar’ Burns among others, and when ‘Sonny Boy II’ was in town, the kid always tried to pick up some new tricks to play. He also made money selling photographs of Bluesmen he had snapped on stage, as well as selling used cars. He made his first record for the Duke label in 1958, backed by Eddie Burns and after his second effort ‘Love Shock’ was leased to Excello, the business-savvy Sonny got hold of a tape deck and launched his own Speedway Records, leasing his products to bigger labels. He scored several regional hits in the 60s, but lack of promotion meant he never broke through on a National level.
‘The Creeper Returns’ with the Stax house-band behind him!
In 1970, Sonny signed for Enterprise Records, a subsidiary of Stax, and released his first album, the proudly titled ‘New King of the Blues Harmonica’, which was almost all instrumentals. Sonny’s next albums revealed his fine soulful voice on ‘Black and Blue’ in 1972 and ‘Hard Goin’ Up’ the following year, which featured his son Aaron Jr. on guitar. As part of the Stax organisation, Sonny played at the WattStax Festival in LA, and appeared briefly in the subsequent movie, but when Stax went down, Sonny returned to the more low-profile life of a working Blues-club player. He was picked up some twenty years later by the British Sequel label, who issued an album of Sonny’s own material in 1995 called ‘Sonny Side Up’. It sold well enough to earn a follow-up, ‘Blues with a Feeling’ the following year where he also revisited some of his 60s songs, and a live album was recorded on tour in Japan for P-Vine. The same label released Sonny’s album ‘The Best Love I Ever Had’ in 2003. Since then the years have caught up on Sonny a little, but he has played the occasional club or Festival date around Detroit, often in the company of Eddie Burns who sadly passed away in December 2012, so it is still possible that we might hear more from Little Sonny.