William Criss was born in Memphis, Tennessee and moved to Los Angeles at the age of 15. He then went on to play in various bands includingHoward McGhee's, which also featured Charlie Parker.
Criss had developed his own, concise, bluesy tone by this point, and though his basic style did not vary much, his ability on the instrument continued to develop. Nevertheless, he continued to drift from band to band, and played on some records with Johnny Otis and Billy Eckstine.
His first major break came in 1947, on a number of jam sessions arranged by jazz impresario Norman Granz. In 1956 he signed to Imperial Records, based in New York, and recorded a series albums including Jazz U.S.A , Go Man! and Sonny Criss Plays Cole Porter featuring pianist Sonny Clark.Capitol, which owned the master recordings, reissued them as a 2-CD set on their Blue Note imprint in October, 2000. Criss also recorded At the Crossroads with Kind of Blue pianist Wynton Kelly.
Prestige signed him in 1965, and he continued to record well-acclaimed albums which were mainly rooted in hard bop traditions. Sonny's Dreamfeatured arrangements by Horace Tapscott. Later sessions were recorded for Muse and Impulse.
By 1977, Criss had developed stomach cancer and did not play again. As a consequence of this painful condition, Criss committed suicide (self-inflicted gunshot) in 1977 in his adopted city of Los Angeles