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Cover Story

Captured for life

A Detroit narrative in photos by a true Motor City original

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Published 10/1/2008

Every picture tells a story," some dude sang ages ago. That's certainly the case with Little Sonny Willis, the "new king of the blues harmonica" and one of Detroit's most unsung musical legends, who's documented damn near every facet of his life with photographs while, by association, also documenting the Detroit blues music scene of the past four decades.

"Both my grandmother and my mother were pack rats," Willis says, sitting and reminiscing in the basement of his lovely Detroit home, all blue and white outside, including the all-terrain carpet leading up the walk to his front door. The basement could serve as a Michigan blues museum of sorts — although John Penney, music expert and director of Farmington Hills' American Music Research Foundation, says only Willis' immediate circle of family and friends have ever seen the archives. In fact, he claims the artist himself hasn't looked at most of this archival treasure since his wife died 12 years ago.

There are posters on the wall, from Detroit's classic Hastings Street era and Willis' many gigs at the Apex, the Congo Lounge and the Calumet Show Bar, dating back to the late 1950s. There's a colorful one announcing a 1960 co-headlining performance — a "Battle of the Blues," actually — with B.B. King in Detroit and Ypsilanti; another a promotion for the Wattstax music festival (aka "the black Woodstock") where Willis joined Isaac Hayes, Richard Pryor, Albert King and so many others when this blues purist — who admits to happily embracing "Elvis Presley and all the rest of 'em" in the clubs at the advent of rock 'n' roll before later similarly embracing funk 'n' soul — was recording for Al Bell and the legendary Stax label in Memphis during the early '70s. He still has his 45s and 78s, recordings for Duke and Excello, among other labels, as well as the records he released on his own local Speedway imprint.

And then there are the photos, always the photos, including such grand images as Willis and a young John Lee Hooker, both dapper in their spiffy threads, standing on that aforementioned Hastings Street; another shot shows them hard at work, recording together. There are performance shots of Willis with such other local blues greats as Eddie Burns, Eddie Kirkland, Funk Brothers Joe Hunter and Eddie Willis (no relation), and a little-known extraordinary whiz kid bass player named James Jamerson. Those photos lead to recollections of playing with Brook Benton. Junior Parker. Curtis Mayfield. Ike & Tina Turner at Cobo Arena the year it opened.

There are shots of Detroit performances by such eternal giants as Bobby "Blue" Bland, Detroit's own Washboard Willie, and, at Joe's Bar on Lafayette, the second Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), Willis' mentor and main inspiration, although contrary to popular misconception, Willis says his lifetime nickname came from his mother. "[She] called me 'Sonny boy' from the time I can remember." The man, originally christened Aaron Willis, also has damn near every document from his business and personal life, including his earliest contracts, financial ledgers and official commendations and awards. "I'd probably have to pay them to take it," he chuckles after MT jokes that he could probably sell his framed commendation from Kwame Kilpatrick for lots of money on eBay, only days after the mayor's resignation; "I couldn't care less" he says when reminded he probably won't be getting another from the honorable Kilpatrick.

There's a photo he took of a portrait of his young maternal grandmother who raised him and taught him his values (and who he later discovered was almost pure Native American "Indian"). Several of his beloved mother, who worked as a single parent to support him and his brother, both raised in a shack in rural Cassimore, Ala., not far from Greensboro; she didn't approve of the blues, called it the "devil's music," yet she also bought him his first 5-cent plastic harmonica for Christmas. "I don't remember her ever telling me, but she always showed me how much she loved me," he recalls. "And that's how I've always lived my life. I tell people I love them, but I show it as well." The son would return to Cassimore after gaining fame and some money in Detroit, to build his mother a house — he and his wife chopped wood to clear the area — before he and his young bride returned to Detroit to purchase the Conant Gardens-area home he still lives in today.

Unlike his Alabama neighbors, Willis wasn't raised in a sharecropper family, but on the land his grandmother owned (and he still owns today). That gave him a strong sense of independence that remained with him throughout his life and career. "I treat everyone with respect," says this instantly likable man, "and I hope they'll respect me back. My grandmother taught me that no one is more important than you but you're no more important than anyone else, I don't care what color you are." But after that independence led to a run-in with cracker "law-enforcement" officials in Tuscaloosa — Willis' car had hit a tree and damaged some bark — he relocated to the Motor City for good in 1953. Sonny would later send for his wife, Maggie — whom he'd met in Cassimore when she was 13 and he was a year older; "Boy, you are pretty!" he told her when they first met — and together, they raised four children in this Detroit neighborhood.

Maggie was the rock behind her man, and encouraged him; in fact, she co-wrote Sonny's first recording, "I Gotta Find My Baby," with her husband. Their two sons Aaron, Jr. and Anthony, learned how to be excellent musicians themselves in this basement — and today, both still play in their father's band. Aaron also plays lead guitar with Detroit soul hit makers the Dramatics — but their father always taught the young men to be practical. Before joining the Dramatics, Aaron spent years on the line at Chrysler so he could first make his money before devoting his life to music. Memories of growing up in a single parent household led the elder Willis to not tour as much as many of his peers did back in the day — and it's probably why he isn't a bigger musical legend today outside blues circles.

Nevertheless, Little Sonny Willis remains a superstar in Japan — where he headlined Tokyo's first-ever major blues festival eight years ago. He's still revered in Britain. And he was also a superstar for years on the local blues club scene, where he once made as much money taking photos of patrons and artists between sets with his trusty Polaroid, putting them in nice cardboard frames and then selling them back to the customers; he made $60 a night for five sets in his early club years but the photos would bring in an additional $100 a night. His still-vibrant performances have tapered down to just several a year — this week's appearance at the Motor City Blues & Boogie Woogie Festival comes just two days before his 76th birthday — and when he does go out and folks recognize him: "People always say, 'Little Sonny, we didn't even know you were living in Detroit.'"

Especially notable among Willis' collection are numerous Polaroid shots of beautiful young women, seated at the bar or at tables, in the once thriving but still segregated Detroit blues clubs of yore.

"Those were our groupies," he says, but cautions that "there was no lovin' or huggin' or kissing. They just wanted you to take them to dinner. They just all wanted to be seen out with a celebrity and I took a lot of them to dinner because they'd come back to the club and bring more people with them." His wife didn't object? "No," chuckles the man whose original aspiration was to be a professional baseball player. "She was always very happy when I'd come home with that pocketful of money late on Sunday nights. And then she got to spend the money. On Monday, she went shopping!"

But a picture is worth a thousand words, to steal yet another cliché, and Little Sonny Willis' pictures are genuine documents of living musical history; his basement full of that history, an important history — and many of them say all that really needs to be said.

Little Sonny performs Saturday, Oct. 4, at the Motor City Blues & Boogie Woogie Festival, Music Hall, 350 Madison St., Detroit; 313-887-8501. With Eddie Burns, Otis Clay and Bobby Rush. The bill on Friday, Oct. 3, includes the piano work of Allen Toussaint, Pinetop Perkins and Bob Seeley.

Bill Holdship is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to bholdship@metrotimes.com

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