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The Stax empire wasn't exactly renowned for its legion of blues harpists, but Little Sonny found the Memphis firm quite an agreeable home during the early '70s (he even appeared in the label's grandiose concert film, Wattstax, albeit very briefly).
Little Sonny, whose birth name is Aaron Willis, is a product of Detroit's blues scene. He moved to the Motor City in 1953 after growing up on his dad's farm in Alabama (his mom gave him his nickname). When Little Sonny wasn't working local haunts with John Lee Hooker, Eddie Burns, Eddie Kirkland, Baby Boy Warren, or Washboard Willie (who gave him his first paying gig), he was snapping photos of the patrons for half a buck a snap.
Sonny Boy Williamson rambled through town in 1955 and gave Willis some valuable pointers. In 1958, Sonny made his blues recording debut, cutting for both Duke ("I Gotta Find My Baby") and local entrepreneur Joe Von Battle, who leased Little Sonny's "Love Shock" to Nashville's Excello imprint.
The harpist acquired a two-track tape machine and took matters into his own hands during the early '60s, helming his tiny Speedway label. He leased "The Creeper" and "Latin Soul" to Detroit's Revilot Records (his labelmates included Darrell Banks and George Clinton's Parliament) in 1966. That set the stage for his joining Stax's Enterprise label in 1970; his first album was the largely instrumental New King of Blues Harmonica -- a rather brash boast for a relative unknown.
Two more Enterprise sets that more effectively featured Little Sonny's vocal talents soon followed: Black & Blue and 1973's Hard Goin' Up, the latter distinguished by the Bettye Crutcher-penned "It's Hard Goin' Up (But Twice as Hard Coming Down)" and a variety of other soul-inflected tracks. Not much was heard from the harpist until the British Sequel imprint released Sonny Side Up in 1995. His backing crew included keyboardist Rudy Robinson and guitarist Aaron Willis, Jr., (his son) both of whom graced Hard Goin' Up more than two decades before.
Little Sonny (born Aaron Willis, October 6, 1932, Greensboro, Alabama) is an American electric blues harmonica player, singer and songwriter. His early mentor and inspiration was Sonny Boy Williamson II. Nevertheless, Little Sonny stated that his nickname originated with his mother. "[She] called me 'Sonny boy' from the time I can remember." He has released eight albums, including a trio on a subsidiary of Stax Records. His 1973 release, Hard Goin' Up, reached the Top 50 in the US Billboard R&B chart.
He was born in 1932 and raised solely by his mother. His early interest lay in baseball, before he relocated to Detroit in 1953. At first he had no real interest in music until, as he explained, "But then I saw Sonny Boy Williamson II." Willis was "spellbound at the way he played. After the show I went home and practiced for hours. Every day after that I would practice until I got the sound I wanted." His daytime job was working in a used car lot.
His first professional appearance was at the Good Times Bar in Detroit, playing in Washboard Willie's backing group. He put together his first band in March 1956. For the following fifteen years Little Sonny performed in numerous Detroit clubs, often boosting his earnings by photographing customers between his on-stage appearances. He ofttimes performed alongside John Lee Hooker, Eddie Kirkland and Baby Boy Warren. Another club stalwart Eddie "Guitar" Burns provided accompaniment to Little Sonny on his debut single, "I Gotta Find My Baby" (1958), which was released by Duke Records. It was co-written with Little Sonny's wife, Maggie. His follow-up release, "Love Shock" appeared on Excello label. He received $25 for the latter track, before setting up his own label (Speedway Records) and selling sufficient copies of his next effort, "The Mix Up", to write off his production costs.
Home recording his own tracks, in 1966 he leased "The Creeper" and "Latin Soul" to Revilot Records. A later track, "Sonny’s Bag," became his first Top 20 hit in Detroit. By late 1969, Little Sonny finally recorded his debut album, the predominately instrumental, New King of Blues Harmonica, which he cut in less than six hours. It was released on Enterprise, a subsidiary of Stax Records. Despite their reputation for soul music productions, Little Sonny released three albums with them in the early 1970s. He also briefly appeared in their concert film, Wattstax.
Black & Blue (1972) and 1973's Hard Goin' Up followed, with Little Sonny using an Old Standby 34B harmonica. A lean period ensued before the British label Sequel Records issued Sonny Side Up in 1995. His accompanists included keyboard player Rudy Robinson, and Little Sonny's guitarist son Aaron Willis, Jr., who had both played on Hard Goin' Up over twenty years previously.
Little Sonny appeared at Black Hills State University on June 24, 2000.
His photograph collection, housed in the basement of his Detroit home, includes shots of John Lee Hooker, Eddie "Guitar" Burns, Eddie Kirkland, Joe Hunter, Eddie Willis, Bobby Bland, Washboard Willie, and Sonny Boy Williamson II. Little Sonny performed on October 4, 2008, at the Motor City Blues & Boogie Woogie Festival, in Detroit, with Eddie "Guitar" Burns, Otis Clay and Bobby Rush.
He is not to be confused with Little Sonny Warner, Little Sonny Jones, or Little Sonny Parker.