'Help Me' goes from blues to alt-rock

Dec 21, 2012

Sonny Boy Williamson’s career had a wide range. He played with Robert Johnson in the 1930’s and with Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page in the 1960’s. His ability to span eras is a testament to the timelessness of his voice and harmonica.

Sonny Boy Williamson recorded “Help Me” in 1963, and it bears a striking similarity to the instrumental “Green Onions," from Booker T and the MGs one year earlier. It is unusual because it uses minor chords, and has a sort of dark and foreboding sound.

Sonny Boy Williamson had a unique harmonica style, that provided a lot of rhythm, even without a band. This is a wonderful video of him performing “Bye Bye Bird:"

By the mid '60s, blues was making its way to the pop music mainstream with groups like Cream and John Mayall. There were several covers of “Help Me” – Canned Heat recorded it on their 1967 debut.

Sugar Blue is a true harmonica virtuoso. If you recognize his style, it’s because you’ve heard him on albums from the Rolling Stones. He recorded “Help Me” in 1994. His technique is inspired by Sonny Boy Williamson, as he explains in this clip:

One year later, alternative rock singer Joan Osborne recorded “Help Me” on her hugely successful debut album "Relish." She introduced the song to an entirely new audience, who likely never heard of Sonny Boy Williamson, or even blues. Here’s a live clip of Joan Osborne performing "Help Me:"

Here are the complete versions of "Help Me:"

Sonny Boy Williamson “Help Me” 1963

Canned Heat “Help Me”  1967

Sugar Blue     “Help Me”  1994

Joan Osborne  “Help Me” 1995 

Booker T. & the MGs “Green Onions” 1962