Born: November 30, 1915 in Knoxville TN
Died: February 16, 1996 in Oakland CA
Brownie McGhee is one of the most famous of the blues artists that worked in the acoustic, folk-oriented Piedmont blues style common in the Southeast United States. Known for his solo recordings as well as for his long-lasting relationship with blind harpist Sonny Terry, McGhee was one of the last ambassadors of a style that evolved from the string-band tradition of the early 1900s. McGhee's musical influence would extend beyond the folk artists of the '60s to include contemporary blues artists like Cephas & Wiggins and rocker Ben Harper.
Traveling With Blind Boy Fuller
Walter Brown ("Brownie") McGhee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee and raised in nearby Kingsport. Afflicted with polio at the age of four, crippling one leg, Brownie was pushed around in a cart by his older brother, guitarist Granville (nicknamed "Sticks"). The McGhee family was musically-inclined, and the young McGhee learned to play guitar from his father. The March of Dimes funded an operation on McGhee's leg in 1937 that allowed the musician to walk, albeit with a slight limp.
McGhee developed a love of gospel music as a youth, and he would later sing with the local Golden Voices Gospel Quartet. After his operation, McGhee became a traveling bluesman, making his way to North Carolina, where he hooked up with "Blind Boy" Fuller, one of his main musical influences, and Fuller's manager, J.B. Long. Long arranged for McGhee to record over a dozen sides in Chicago, the first of which - a remake of Fuller's "Step It Up And Go" - was released by Okeh Records in 1940.
Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee
Fuller died suddenly of blood poisoning in 1941, leaving a void in the Piedmont blues scene. Long rushed in to capitalize on the tragedy, and had McGhee record his tribute to his mentor, "Death Of Blind Boy Fuller," using Fuller's trademark guitar. At the same time, Okeh reissued several of McGhee's earlier records under the name "Blind Boy Fuller No. 2," which McGhee reportedly used as a performer for a brief time.
During his 1941 session for Okeh, McGhee was paired with Fuller's former harp player, Sonny Terry, for the song "Workingman's Blues." They found a distinctive musical chemistry working together, and the two blues musicians moved to New York City in 1942 to purse opportunities on the growing folk circuit. Befriended by the legendary Leadbelly, who got the duo work in the city's coffee houses and folk clubs, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee soon became part of a circle of artists that included the Rev. Gary Davis, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger.
Terry and McGhee became a popular act with young, white folk music fans and were among the first blues artists to perform in Europe during the 1950s, brought overseas by promoter and musician Chris Barber. The duo's Piedmont blues sound was ready-made for the folk festivals and college campuses of the 1960s, and the two toured together steadily until their break-up in the late-70s. During this time, Terry and McGhee also recorded regularly for labels like Folkways, Bluesville, and Fantasy, and even stepped out of their "pure" folk style to perform frequently with a jump blues band with horns.
Brownie McGhee's Solo Work
After relocating to New York City, McGhee opened his School of Blues in Harlem, giving guitar lessons to interested students. McGhee also recorded prolifically as a solo artist throughout the 1940s and '50s, sometimes under pseudonyms like Spider Sam or Blind Boy Williams to prevent contract problems. Neither did McGhee limit himself to the folk blues style he was known for; he often recorded electric-blues, R&B, and even gospel music for a variety of labels like Savoy, London, Dot, Red Robin, and Harlem. McGhee scored a major rhythm and blues hit with the song "My Fault" in 1948.
McGhee even turned his skills towards acting, appearing on Broadway for a three-year run of Tennessee Williams' Cat On A Hot Tin Room in 1955, and later performing in the Langston Hughes play Simply Heaven and in Finian's Rainbow. McGhee also appeared in films like 1987's Angel Heart as well as on the television show Family Ties, and his musical performances - both solo and with Terry - were featured in several blues documentary films.
After breaking with Terry around 1980, McGhee continued to bring his Piedmont blues sound to audiences worldwide until his death from cancer in 1996. Among McGhee's final performances was an appearance at the 1995 Chicago Blues Festival. One of the most beloved of folk blues performers, with a career that spanned six decades, Brownie McGhee was a one-of-a-kind talent.
Recommended Albums: The Sony Legacy collection The Complete Brownie McGhee offers up the best of the artist's 1940-42 sessions for the Okeh label, while The Folkways Years: 1945-1959 may be the best representation of McGhee's folk blues sound, offering 17 performances, including signature songs like "Hangman's Blues," "Me And Sonny," and "Betty And Dupree."