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Sonny Terry Profile

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Sonny Terry's The Folkways Years

Sonny Terry's The Folkways Years

Photo courtesy Price Grabber

Born: October 24, 1911 in Greensboro NC

Died: March 12, 1986 in Mineola NY

Sonny Terry was one of the most famous and beloved of the blues artists that worked in the acoustic, folk-oriented Piedmont blues style common in the Southeast United States. The blind harp player is best-known for his long partnership with guitarist Brownie McGhee, but he also enjoyed a lengthy career as a solo performer, and as an in-demand session player, playing on recordings by artists like Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie. Terry's musical influence would extend beyond the folk world of the '60s to include contemporary blues artists like Cephas & Wiggins and harpist Norton Buffalo.

Performing With Blind Boy Fuller

Born Saunders Terrell in 1911 in rural North Carolina of a farming family, young "Sonny" was blinded by two separate childhood accidents. His father had taught him the rudiments of the harmonica and, aware that his blindness would prevent him from a career on the farm, Terry turned to blues music. Performing on street corners in Durham and Raleigh for tips, sometime around 1934 Terry was befriended by Blind Boy Fuller, one of the Piedmont area's most popular guitarists and performers.

Terry's harp playing became an integral part of Fuller's trio, and the young bluesman traveled with Fuller to New York City in 1937 to record songs for the Vocalion and American Record Company labels. A year later, Terry appeared as part of John Hammond's first From Spirituals To Swing concert in NYC, performing his song "Mountain Blues" for the audience in Carnegie Hall. Sometime during the late-1930s, Fuller introduced Terry to guitarist Brownie McGhee, thereby accidently creating one of the most enduring and popular duos in the history of the blues.

Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee

Terry and McGhee performed together frequently, and after Fuller's death in 1941, their partnership became more or less permanent. Fuller's manager, J.B. Long - who also managed McGhee - originally assigned the guitarist to watch over the blind harp player, thinking that he could get two show bookings for the price of one. For a while, McGhee performed with Terry as "Blind Boy Fuller No.2" at Long's suggestion. The pair would later pick up stakes and move to New York City.

Upon their arrival in the Big Apple, Terry and McGhee were 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, the pair often performing and recording, both together and separately, with the folk musicians.

Folk-Blues Pioneers

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, even traveling to Australia and New Zealand in addition to the United States and Europe.

During the 1950s and '60s, Terry and McGhee recorded regularly for labels like Folkways, Bluesville, and Fantasy, and even stepped out of their "pure" folk style to frequently perform with a jump blues band with horns.

Terry's Other Pursuits

A well-rounded artist of seemingly limitless talent, Terry also was involved in acting. In 1946 he was part of the original cast of the hit Broadway play Finian's Rainbow, and a decade later he returned to the "Great White Way" to appear in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. During the 1960s, Terry performed with singer Harry Belafonte, and appeared in several television commercials. In 1975, Terry found the time to write The Harp Styles of Sonny Terry, an instructional guide to the harmonica.

Terry's solo work often gets short changed due to his lengthy and often prolific association with McGhee. On his own, Terry recorded sporadically throughout the 1940s and '50s, later producing full-length albums like Sonny's Story and Sonny Is King during the early-60s, performing with musicians like Sticks McGhee, Brownie's brother; harpist J.C. Burris; and Texas blues legend Lightning Hopkins.

In 1984, Alligator Records released Terry's final studio album, Whoopin'. Produced by blues-rock guitarist Johnny Winter, who also lent his six-string talents to the album, Whoopin' also featured Chicago blues great Willie Dixon.

Recommended Albums: Terry's The Folkway Years, 1944-1963 features the harp player in a variety of musical settings, from solo material to recordings with McGhee, folk singer Pete Seeger, and others, perfectly framing the depth of Terry's incredible talents. The album includes signature Terry songs like "Old Jabo," "Fox Chase," and "Lost John" as well as traditional blues numbers like "Jailhouse Blues."

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