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Michigan Heritage Awards

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Photo by Laurie Sommers

Photo by Laurie Sommers

Aaron "Little Sonny" Willis
1992 awardee, Detroit (Wayne County), blues harmonica musician

Detroit has been an important regional blues center since at least the late 1920s. Among the many prominent African-American blues musicians working in Detroit, one of the most respected by fellow musicians, is Aaron "Little Sonny" Willis, "King of the Blues Harmonica." A prominent composer and arranger who has written more than 100 songs, he is perhaps best known for the hot, hard-driving harmonica sound that has made his home an international mecca for those interested in blues. Many view him as heir to the great blues harp player Sonnie Boy Williamson, from whom he derives his nickname, "Little Sonny."

Little Sonny, b. 1932, grew up in Greensboro, Alabama, where he sang gospel and spirituals. After his mother gave him a toy harmonica, he increasingly listened to country and western and blues harmonica on the radio, as well as recordings of famous blues performers. He moved to Detroit permanently in 1953 when the legendary blues scene on Hastings Street was reaching its peak. Beginning in the mid-1950s, Little Sonny held house band engagements at Detroit blues clubs for 20 years, employing many prominent bluesmen. He made his second recording, "Love Shock," in the back room of Joe's Record Shop (later the JVB label), which was re-released and distributed nationally by Excello.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s Little Sonny toured nationally and recorded three albums with the Stax subsidiary, Enterprise. His original blues and R & B songs have been released on albums by such artists as Albert King and Bobby Womack. A true appreciation of Little Sonny's artistry, however, can only be obtained in person. He is a consummate entertainer, moving and playing on stage with incredible intensity and energy. He continues to tour internationally, and currently has a five-member band called Little Sonny and the Detroit Rhythm Group.

Little Sonny has been a mentor to many musicians, not the least of whom are his talented sons, Anthony and Aaron, Jr. His message is this: "You must know who you are before you can find any other direction. Blues is the roots of you. Blues, jazz, spirituals, this is you." (1)

(1) Willis, Aaron. "Little Sonny Willis," Global Sounds Artists. Arts Midwest. Link

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