Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee - Biography
By J Poet
Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee played the blues and African American folk music, keeping traditional blues alive throughout the late 40s and 50s, a time when many people, black and white, though the blues was dying. They helped launch the blues revival of the 60s, by making white college kids aware of the beauty and power of the music, and remained a top draw on the curcuit until their acrimonous break up in the mid 70s. Both men continued playing as solo artists, but alone they lacked the magic that made them special.
Sonny Terry was born in 1911, in Greensboro, NC. He lost his sight in an accident when he was 16, and decided to become a blues singer. He’s mastered the blues harmonica in his teens and played on the streets for tips until meeting Blind Boy Fuller in Durham. In 1934, Fuller and Terry started playing together and created a buzz with fuller’s picking supported by Terry’s unique harmonica style, short, brittle fills punctuated by his enthusiastic whoops and hollers. Terry and Fuller made some records for the Vocalion label in New York and Terry participated in John Hammond’s legendary Spirituals to Swing concerts of 1938 and 1939. His performances are captured on the three CD set From Spirituals to Swing (1999 Vanguard).
In 1939 Terry was back in Durham. Fuller’s manager, J. B. Long, hired Brownie McGhee to look after Terry and the two men hit it off and started playing together. When fuller died in 1941, they moved to New York City.
Brownie McGhee was born in 1915 and grew up in Kingsport, TN. His brother Stick McGee taught him to play guitar, and when polio left Brownie unable to move, he threw himself into his guitar playing. (Stick later had a big hit with “Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee,” a seminal R&B side.) In 1937 an operation restored some mobility to McGhee’s leg and he started traveling around the south, singing and playing the blues. In 1940, Blind Boy Fuller’s manager, J. B. Long, discovered him and got him a contract with OKeh records. He cut a dozen songs for the label and when he got back to Durham, Long put him in charge of Sonny Terry. The sides McGee and Terry cut before they teamed up are collected on the five CD box set Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee 1938-1948 (2004 JSP UK).
When Fuller died in 1941, McGee and Terry teamed up and moved to New York City. From 1942 to 1950 McGhee ran a music school in Harlem. They also met Pete Seeger, Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, played the folk circuit and cut dozens of album for various folk, blues and R&B labels including Folkways, Savoy, Jax, RCA, Red Robin, Dot. Old Town, Ember and Savoy. They also backed up Guthrie, Seeger and other folk singers on their albums. Some of their early sides are collected on Negro Folksongs by the Folkmasters (1952 Folkways), Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee (1958 Fantasy) California Blues (1990 Fantasy) and Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry Sing (1958 Folkways, 2005 Smithsonian Folkways). Just a Closer Walk with Thee (1960 Fantasy, 1991 Original Blues Classics) was their first gospel album, recorded live at Jenny Lind Hall in Oakland in 1957.
McGee took his songs to the Broadway stage in Finian’s Rainbow in 1946 and in the late 50s and played in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for three years in the late 50s. Terry & McGee became one of the first blues acts to tour Europe, where they found an enthusiastic fan base. As the folk revival, then the blues revival took hold, they stayed on the road for almost 200 nights a year and made albums for Folkways, Choice, Prestige, Verve, Storyville, World Pacific, Bluesville, and Fantasy.
As a duo that made over 100 albums for various labels, not counting Best Ofs and reissue compilations. Here’s a brief guide to some of their best.
Backwater Blues (1961 Prestige, 1999 Fantasy) was recorded live at the short lived Sugar Hill blues club in San Francisco and is a fine example of McGee’s understated guitar mastery and mellow singing. Terry’s harp and vocals are as fiery as ever. The Bluesville Years, Vol. 5: Mr. Brownie And Mr. Sonny (1996 Prestige) collects sides from their Bluesville albums - Blues All Round My Head (1962 Bluesville), Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry Live at the 2nd Fret (1963 Bluesville) and Blues in My Soul (1963 Bluesville). Preachin’ the Blues (1968 Folkways), a collection of blues and folksongs. Sonny & Brownie (1973 A&M, 1990 A&M) is an anomaly, a soul super session with an eclectic band covering tunes by Michael Franks, Randy Newman and Sam Cooke.
By the late 70s, McGhee and Terry had burned out and while they continued touring into 1980, they reportedly were not on speaking terms when they were off stage. Walk On (2005 Just A Memory) captures them live at a reunion concert in Montreal in 1980, still consummate professionals, despite whatever was going on off stage. Both men made a number of solo albums over the years, most notably Terry’s Whoopin’ (1984 Alligator) with Johnny Winter on guitar and Willie Dixon on bass, but nothing that captured the spark they had together. Terry passed in 1986, the year he was inducted into the Blues Foundations Hall of Fame. McGee died of cancer at his Oakland, CA home in 1996.