Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee

Gary: It’s difficult to remember the year, but it had to be somewhere in the early 60’s maybe 1963.  I know it was around that time, because, our “Village” called Yorkville in Toronto was just teaming with folk singers.  Yes, Gordon Lightfoot would play for money on the sidewalk. 

I went to a very small club called the Myna Bird and watched a blind harp player and a great guitarist. They entertained us all night and I became a fan of Country Blues.  They never had any top 40 listings and they have both left us now, but I still love “Midnight Special” by…

 SonnyBrownie1Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee
(photo courtesy of Terry Cryer)

Videos:       

1974 Concert done for the BBC /

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1962 / Stranger Blues /

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Rock Island with Pete Seeger /

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1964 France / Walk On with Otis Spann /

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I am aware that most of you like popular music, so I appreciate your tolerance for a relatively unheard of duo who sing Country Blues and never made any charts, they were all Albums.  So I will give you an idea of the music I enjoy, from Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.  The years of the songs are difficult, if anyone knows, I would appreciate your input.

AUDIO:  

Bring it on Home to Me / originally by Sam Cooke

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The Midnight Special / I guess one of my favourites

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One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer

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Stranger Blues / 1967 recording

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Red River Blues

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Working Man Blues

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John Henry

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Walk On

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Brownie McGhee recorded a tribute to the Great Baseball Player of his time, Jackie Robinson, 1947, called Baseball Boogie

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Sonny Terry

Born Saunders Terrell on October 24, 1911, in Greensboro, GA. He lost his sight by the time he was 16 in two separate accidents.

His father played harmonica in local functions around town and taught Terry at an early age. Realizing his eyesight would keep him from pursuing a profession in farming, Terry decided instead to be a blues singer.

He began traveling to nearby Raleigh and Durham, NC, performing on street corners for tips.

In 1934, he befriended the popular guitarist Blind Boy FullerFuller convinced Terry to move to Durham, where the two immediately gained a strong local following.

By 1937, they were offered an opportunity to go to New York and record for the Vocalion label.

A year later, Terry would be back in New York taking part in John Hammond‘s legendary Spirituals to Swing concert, where he performed one of his memorable tunes, “Mountain Blues.”

Upon returning to Durham, Terry continued playing regularly with Fuller and also met his future partner, guitarist Brownie McGhee, who would accompany Terry off and on for the next two decades. 

McGhee was initially sent to look after Terry by Blind Boy‘s manager, J.B. LongLong figured McGhee might get a chance to play some of the same shows as Terry. A friendship developed between the two men and following Fuller‘s death in 1941, Terry and McGhee moved to New York. The change proved fruitful as they immediately found steady work, playing concerts both as a duo and solo. 

Terry became an in-demand session player who started showing up regularly on the records of folk luminaries including LeadbellyWoody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger.

An acting role was also initiated at this time, in the long-running Broadway production of Finian’s Rainbow in 1946.

By the mid-’50s, Terry and McGhee began broadening their collective horizons and traveled extensively outside of New York.

They released a multitude of recordings for labels like Folkways, Savoy, and Fantasy that crossed the boundaries of race, becoming well-known in folk and blues circles performing for black and white audiences.

It was also in the mid-50s that Terry and McGhee accepted roles on Broadway, joining the cast of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, exposing them to an even broader audience.

In the early ’60’s, the duo performed at numerous folk and blues festivals around the world, while Terry found time to work with singer Harry Belafonte and in television commercials. 

Terry was constantly traveling throughout the ’70’s, stopping only long enough to write his instructional book, The Harp Styles of Sonny Terry.

By the mid-’70’s, the strain of being on the road developed into personal problems between McGhee and Terry. Unfortunately, they resigned their long partnership, divided by the bitterness of constant touring. 

Terry was still being discovered by a younger blues generation via the Johnny Winter-produced album Whoopin’ for the Alligator label, featuring Winter and Willie DixonWinter had produced a comeback album for Muddy Waters (Hard Again) that helped rejuvenate his career, and he was attempting the same with Terry.

By the ’80’s, Terry‘s age was catching up with him. He quit recording and only accepted sporadic live appearances. Terry passed away in 1986, the year he was inducted into the Blues Foundations Hall of Fame.

Brownie McGhee

His death in 1996 was an enormous loss in the blues field. Although he had been semi-retired and suffering from stomach cancer, the guitarist was still the leading Piedmont-style bluesman on the planet, venerated worldwide for his prolific activities both on his own and with his long-time partner, blind harpist Sonny Terry.

Together, McGhee and Terry worked for decades in an acoustic folk-blues bag, singing ancient ditties like “John Henry” and “Pick a Bale of Cotton” for appreciative audiences worldwide.

But McGhee was capable of a great deal more. Throughout the immediate postwar era, he cut electric blues and R&B on the New York scene, even enjoying a huge R&B hit in 1948 with “My Fault” for Savoy (Hal “Cornbread” Singer handled tenor sax duties on the 78).

Walter Brown McGhee grew up in Kingsport, Tennessee. He contracted polio at the age of four, which left him with a serious limp and plenty of time away from school to practice the guitar chords that he’d learned from his father, Duff McGhee. 

Brownie‘s younger brother, Granville McGhee, was also a talented guitarist who later hit big with the romping “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee”; he earned his nickname, “Stick,” by pushing his crippled sibling around in a small cart propelled by a stick.

A 1937 operation sponsored by the March of Dimes restored most of McGhee‘s mobility. Off he went as soon as he recovered, traveling and playing throughout the Southeast. His jaunts brought him into contact with washboard player George “Oh Red” (or “Bull City Red”) Washington in 1940, who in turn introduced McGhee to talent scout J.B. LongLong got him a recording contract with OKeh/Columbia in 1940; his debut session in Chicago produced a dozen tracks over two days.

Long‘s principal blues artist, Blind Boy Fuller, died in 1941, precipitating Okeh issuance of some of McGhee‘s early efforts under the sobriquet of Blind Boy Fuller No. 2McGhee cut a moving tribute song, “Death of Blind Boy Fuller,” shortly afterward. McGhee‘s third marathon session for OKeh in 1941 paired him for the first time on shellac with whooping harpist Terry for “Workingman’s Blues.”

The pair resettled in New York in 1942. They quickly got connected with the city’s burgeoning folk music circuit, working with Woody GuthriePete Seeger, and Leadbelly. After the end of World War II,McGhee began to record most prolifically, both with and without Terry, for a myriad of R&B labels: Savoy (where he cut “Robbie Doby Boogie” in 1948 and “New Baseball Boogie” the next year), Alert, London, Derby, Sittin’ in With, and its Jax subsidiary in 1952, Jackson, Bobby Robinson‘s Red Robin logo (1953), Dot, and Harlem, before crossing over to the folk audience during the late ’50s with Terry at his side. One of McGhee‘s last dates for Savoy in 1958 produced the remarkably contemporary “Living with the Blues,” with Roy Gaines and Carl Lynch blasting away on lead guitars and a sound light years removed from the staid folk world.

McGhee and Terry were among the first blues artists to tour Europe during the ’50s, and they ventured overseas often after that. Their plethora of late-’50s and early-’60’s albums for Folkways, Choice, World Pacific, Bluesville, and Fantasy presented the duo in acoustic folk trappings only, their Piedmont-style musical interplay a constant (if gradually more predictable) delight. McGhee didn’t limit his talents to concert settings. He appeared on Broadway for three years in a production of playwright Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955, and later put in a stint in the Langston Hughes play Simply Heaven. Films (Angel Heart, Buck and the Preacher) and an episode of the TV sitcom Family Ties also benefited from his dignified presence. The wheels finally came off the partnership of McGhee and Terry during the mid-’70’s. Toward the end, they preferred not to share a stage with one another (Terry would play with another guitarist, then McGhee would do a solo), let alone communicate. One of McGhee‘s final concert appearances came at the 1995 Chicago Blues Festival; his voice was a tad less robust than usual, but no less moving, and his rich, full-bodied acoustic guitar work cut through the cool evening air with alacrity. His like won’t pass this way again.

–o–

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10 responses to “Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee

  1. Still got their tunes on CDs. Great duo.

  2. Spent an evening at Le Hibou in Ottawa watching the talents of these two gentlemen. The coffee house was operate by Margaret Trudeau’s sister if the rumours are true. It must have been the same tour they appeared in Yorkville as the time frame is the same. Fuzzy as my memory maybe.

    • If your memory of that time period is fuzzy, John, you must have been there… Who knew back then that their music would still resonate as classic.

    • I also saw Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee at Le Hibou several times in the late ’60s as well as in Vancouver and Toronto. I believe the owner/operator of that club was ‘John’ although I’ve forgotten his last name. That was well before Margaret came to Sussex Drive. I used to play at Le Hibou most Monday evenings when John opened up his stage for us folksinger wannabees. I saw a lot of great acts in that little club which was just a few blocks from where I lived at the time.

  3. Russ, I saw these two several times in the 60’s. I’m sure I saw them at the Town Tavern in Toronto with Palmer

  4. Great duo. They joined the club of twosomes that didn’t get along with each, like the Everly Brothers, Simon & Garfunkel, Sam & Dave.

  5. The photo you are using on this web of Sonny and Brownie is my copyrighrt please be kind enough and put my name withit. See my web http://www.terrycryer.com gallery 11 for confirmation of ownership Thank you Terry Cryer

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