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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Key To The Highway - Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee

Saunders Terrell, better known as Sonny Terry (24 October 1911 - 11 March 1986) was a blind blues musician. He was widely known for his energetic blues harmonica style, which frequently included vocal whoops and hollers, and imitations of trains and fox hunts.Walter Brown ("Brownie") McGhee (November 30, 1915 - February 16, 1996) was a blues singer and guitarist best known for his collaborations with the harmonica player Sonny Terry.

Terry was born in Greensboro, North Carolina. His father, a farmer, taught him to play basic blues harp as a youth. He sustained injuries to his eyes and lost his sight by the time he was 16, which prevented him from doing farm work himself. In order to earn a living Terry was forced to play music. He began playing in Shelby, North Carolina. After his father died he began playing in the trio of Piedmont blues-style guitarist Blind Boy Fuller. When Fuller died in 1941, he established a long-standing musical relationship with Brownie McGhee, and the pair recorded numerous songs together. The duo became well-known among white audiences, as they joined the growing folk movement of the 1950s and 1960s. This included collaborations with Styve Homnick, Woody Guthrie and Moses Asch, producing Folkways Records (now Smithsonian/Folkways) classic recordings.

In 1938 Terry was invited to play at Carnegie Hall for the first From Spirituals to Swing concert, and later that year he recorded for the Library of Congress. In 1940 Terry recorded his first commercial sides. Some of his most famous works include "Old Jabo" a song about a man bitten by a snake and "Lost John" in this he demonstrates his amazing breath control combined with overblows and bends.

Despite their fame as "pure" folk artists, in the 1940s, Terry and McGhee fronted a jump blues combo with honking saxophone and rolling piano that was variously called Brownie McGhee and his Jook House Rockers or Sonny Terry and his Buckshot Five.

Brownie McGhee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee and grew up in Kingsport, Tennessee. As a child he had polio, which incapacitated his leg. His brother Granville "Sticks" or "Stick" McGhee was nicknamed for pushing young Brownie around in a cart. His father, George McGhee, was a factory worker known around University Avenue for playing guitar and singing. Brownie's uncle made him a guitar from a tin marshmallow box and a piece of board. McGhee spent much of his youth immersed in music, singing with local harmony group the Golden Voices Gospel Quartet and teaching himself to play guitar. A March of Dimes-funded leg operation enabled McGhee to walk.

At age 22, Brownie McGhee became a traveling musician, working in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and befriending Blind Boy Fuller, whose guitar playing influenced him greatly. After Fuller's death in 1941, J. B. Long of Columbia Records had McGhee adopt his mentor's name, branding him "Blind Boy Fuller No. 2." By that time, McGhee was recording for Columbia's subsidiary Okeh Records in Chicago, but his real success came after he moved to New York in 1942, when he teamed up with Sonny Terry, whom he had known since 1939 when Sonny was Blind Boy Fuller's harmonica player. The pairing was an overnight success; as well as recording, they toured together until around 1980. As a duo, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee did most of their work from 1958 until 1980, spending 11 months of each year touring, and recording dozens of albums.
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