When he was growing up in Alabama, Little Sonny wanted to be “a great baseball player.” He didn’t care that he had a fine singing voice, which he used to showcase in church.
“I had no intention of being a musician,” says the man who was born Aaron Willis in Greensboro. “I remember telling my mother I hated to sing. And she told me, ‘One day you might have to do it for a living.’
“How right she was.”
Little Sonny has, in fact, been singing and playing harmonica since getting out of high school and moving to Detroit in 1953. He’s released eight albums — including one, “Hard Goin’ Up,” that appeared on the Billboard R&B charts in 1973 — and has a roster of singles such as “I Gotta Find My Baby” (co-written by his late wife, Maggie), “Love Shock,” “The Creeper,” “Latin Soul” and “Sonny’s Bag,” the latter of which was a Top 20 hit in Detroit. He’s performed alongside legends such as John Lee Hooker, Eddie Kirkland, Eddie “Guitar” Burns, Bobby “Blue” Bland and Motown’s Funk Brothers, and he’s been on the bills of the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival, Wattstax and the Motor City Blues & Boogie Woogie Festival.
He’s also received a Michigan Heritage Award for his accomplishments and contributions.
“Music has been beautiful to me,” says Little Sonny, 78, who has two daughters and two sons — the latter play in his band — six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. “I’ve achieved so much in the music world. People say Little Sonny is one of the least-known people in the blues who should be at the top of his game. But I feel like I am at the top of my game, so I don’t worry about that.”
And, Little Sonny adds, he doesn’t plan to quit anytime soon.
“I don’t drink and I don’t smoke and I don’t do drugs,” he says in explaining his longevity. “I’ve kept a clean record of not embarrassing anyone — my family, my children, my peoples, which means all human beings. I was raised by my grandmother and my mother; they instilled the right things in me so I would be able to survive in whatever the world put out for me to do. They taught me to always do what I promise a person I’m going to do.
“If you live that way, you can be around a long time.”
Despite his baseball ambitions, Little Sonny’s musical acumen was obvious at an early age, after receiving a plastic harmonica for a Christmas present. “I would mess around with that harmonica and got so I could make notes with it and liked it,” he recalls. “It was almost like a companion of mine.”
That talent served him well after he moved to Detroit, where he worked days at Dolan Auto Sales, a used car lot, and spent nights hanging out in blues and jazz clubs. He not only brought along his harmonica but also a camera, a hobby he started in Alabama that provided an entrée with many of the performers he would see in Detroit.
“I was going around to see Washboard Willie, Eddie Burns, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson II,” remembers Little Sonny, who keeps a wealth of historic photos in his home. “The Polaroid had just come out, so you could get instant pictures. Every weekend I’d go do that and charge 75 cents or 50 cents a picture.
“Eventually, they found out I played harmonica, so they asked me to sit in. It got to be like a routine, and one night at the Good Times Bar down on Gratiot and St. Aubin I sat in with Washboard and the (manager) asked ... would I like to have a job with Washboard? I asked how much did it pay? ‘$10 a night.’ ‘Sure, I’ll take it.’ ”
Not everybody thought it was a smart move, however. “My boss at the used car lot said, ‘Who would pay to come see you?’ I said, ‘Some day you might,’ ” Little Sonny says with a laugh. “Later on, when I started getting write-ups in magazines, he would say, ‘Let ‘em know you used to work for me ... ’ ”
Little Sonny put his own band together in 1956 and before long signed to Duke Records, which released “I Gotta Find My Baby.” “My wife came to me and said she had a good song for me,” Little Sonny recalls. “She came up with just the first verse and I wrote the rest of them, and I recorded it in our house with a piano — and I still have that tape recorder here at the house.
“It went to No. 7 in Chicago. My first record was a hit record.”
Little Sonny recorded for other labels — including Excello, Revilot and his own Speedway Records — and during the late ’60s signed to Enterprise, which was part of the Stax Records family. He released a pair of mid-’90s albums, 1995’s “Sonny Side Up” and “Blues With a Feeling” a year later, while the Japanese imprint P-Vine was his home for his last studio album, 2003’s “The Best Love I’ve Ever Had,” and some live recordings.
Little Sonny plans to release those titles in the U.S. this year via his own Glynn Enterprises, which includes a publishing company and a record label. It will, he hopes, bring his career up to speed in his homeland and put his rich, if under-celebrated, heritage in perspective.
“I’ve covered so much territory that it’s unbelievable to me,” Little Sonny says. “I’ve just really taken some time this past year to go back over my life and see what I’ve down and sit down with it. And I say, ‘Gee whiz, I’ve done so much I don’t even know what I’ve done!’
“And a lot of things I’ve been doing I’ve never been recognized for, and people don’t know about it. But God knows what I’m doing. That’s all I worry about. And I know what I’m doing, also. It’s not about publicity or anything like that; what makes me feel good is what I do, and that I know I did it.”
The 17th annual Anti-Freeze Blues Festival takes place Friday and Saturday, Jan. 7-8, at the Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. Friday’s show features Little Sonny, Mr. B, Bill Kirchen and Alberta Adams with RJ & the Rhythm Rockers. The Blasters headline Saturday’s show along with Laith Al Saadi and Motor City Josh & Black Beauty. Doors open at 7 p.m. and tickets are $25 each night. Call 248-544-3030 or visit www.themagicbag.com.
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