Williamson's harmonica style was a great influence on post-War performers and, later in his career, he was a mentor to many of the up and coming blues musicians who moved to Chicago, including Muddy Waters. Aleck "Rice" Miller began recording and performing as "Sonny Boy Williamson" and later, to distinguish the two, John Lee has come to be known as Sonny Boy Williamson I or "the original Sonny Boy".
Williamson was born in Madison County, Tennessee, near Jackson, in 1914. His original recordings were considered to be in the country blues style, but he soon demonstrated skill at making harmonica a lead instrument for the blues, and popularized it for the first time in a more urban blues setting. He has been called "the father of modern blues harp". While in his teens he joined Yank Rachell and Sleepy John Estes playing with them in Tennessee and Arkansas, and in 1934 settled in Chicago.
Sonny first recorded for Bluebird Records in 1937 and his first recording, "Good Morning, School Girl", became a standard. He was hugely popular among black audiences throughout the southern United States as well as in the midwestern industrial cities such as Detroit and his home base in Chicago, and his name was synonymous with the blues harmonica for the next decade. Other well-known recordings of his include "Sugar Mama Blues", "Shake the Boogie", "You Better Cut That Out", "Sloppy Drunk", "Early in the Morning", "Stop Breaking Down", and "Hoodoo Hoodoo" aka "Hoodoo Man Blues". In 1947, "Shake the Boogie" made #4 on Billboard's Race Records chart. Williamson's style influenced a large number of blues harmonica performers, including Billy Boy Arnold, Junior Wells, Sonny Terry, Little Walter, and Snooky Pryor among many others. He was the most widely heard and influential blues harmonica player of his generation. His music was also influential on many of his non-harmonica playing contemporaries and successors, including Muddy Waters (who had played guitar with Williamson in the mid-1940s) and Jimmy Rogers (whose first recording in 1946 was as a harmonica player, performing an uncanny imitation of Williamson's style); Rogers later recorded Williamson's songs "My Little Machine" and "Sloppy Drunk" on Chess Records, and Waters recorded "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" in September 1963 for his Chess Folk Singer LP and again in the 1970s when he moved to Johnny Winter's Blue Sky label on CBS.
Williamson recorded prolifically both as a bandleader and a sideman over the entire course of his career, mainly for the Bluebird record label. Before Bluebird moved to Chicago, where it eventually became part of RCA Records, many early sessions took place at the Leland Tower, a hotel in Aurora, Illinois. The top-floor nightclub at the Leland, known as "The Sky Club", was used for live big band broadcasts on a local radio station, was utilized during off-hours as a recording studio for Williamson's early sessions, as well as those of other Bluebird artists.
Williamson's final recording session took place in Chicago in December 1947, backing Big Joe Williams. On June 1, 1948, Williamson was killed in a robbery on Chicago's South Side, as he walked home from a performance at The Plantation Club at 31st St. and Giles Avenue, a tavern just a block and a half away from his home at 3226 S. Giles. Williamson's final words are reported to have been "Lord have mercy".
His legacy has been somewhat overshadowed in the post-war blues era by the popularity of the musician who appropriated his name, Rice Miller, who after Williamson's death went on to record many popular blues songs for Chicago's Checker Records label and others, and toured Europe several times during the 'blues revival' in the 1960s.
Williamson is buried at the former site of The Blairs Chapel Church, southwest of Jackson, Tennessee. In 1991, a red granite marker was purchased by fans and family to mark the site of his burial. A Tennessee historical marker, also placed in 1991, indicates the place of his birth and describes his influence on blues music. The historical marker is located south of Jackson on TN Highway 18, at the corner of Caldwell Road.
The recordings made by John Lee Williamson between 1937 and his death in 1948, and those made later by "Rice" Miller, were all originally issued under the name Sonny Boy Williamson. It is believed that Miller adopted the name to suggest to audiences, and his first record label, that he was the "original" Sonny Boy. In order to differentiate between the two musicians, many later scholars and biographers now refer to Williamson (1914-1948) as "Sonny Boy Williamson I", and Miller (c.1912-1965) as "Sonny Boy Williamson II".