I wasn't very familiar with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee before starting this little blogging project, but as soon as I heard them, I knew I had to feature them. (So thanks for the recommendation, Bee Man Caught In Sting and Batman: The Horse.) Best known as a duo act, Walter "Brownie" McGhee and Sonny Terry (born Saunders Terrell) played together for four decades through the mid-1970s. Here's a clip from the 1996 video Blues Masters, which gathers performances recorded in 1966 for Canadian TV, with an introduction by Canadian musician Colin James that obviates the need for me to write a bio about them, and I'm always up for letting someone else do my work:



Oh, what the hell, I'll write a short bio anyway. Unlike other musicians I've featured so far, Terry and McGhee didn't come from the Missisissippi Delta but from North Carolina and Tennessee, and so favored the Appalachian region's Piedmont blues style, which was more open to influence from other genres like ragtime and country. (Read more about Piedmont blues here, here, and here.) Though they were most successful when they stayed close to their Appalachian roots, McGhee and Terry first started working together in the New York City folk scene, where they also led a big-band-style jump blues group and appeared in the original Broadway productions of Finian's Rainbow and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. (McGhee would later have a small role in the 1987 movie Angel Heart as well.) Born in 1911 and 1915 respectively, Terry and McGhee got their start in music partly because of childhood handicaps that made them unable to work in the factory or farm jobs that were all that was available to most black men of the time—a paralyzed leg from polio in McGhee's case, and blindess in Terry's. They both became protégés of the guitarist Blind Boy Fuller, and became partners upon Fuller's death. McGhee was the guitarist in the duo, while Terry played the harmonica and supplemented his singing with unforgettable whoops and hollers. For more, check out their respective Wikipedia pages here and here, and the bios at Livinblues and Justin Time Records.

Again from Blues Masters, here's "Born And Living With The Blues":



The two of them apparently didn't get along very well and were well-known for arguing with each other both on stage and off, a mutual antagonism that deepened over the years until they finally broke up in the 1970s. I don't see much evidence of that in the clips I've found, though–they seem to fit together like puzzle pieces, trading back and forth with an easygoing, genial charm. Here they are on "Red River Blues" and "Crow Jane," from the DVD Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry: Red River Blues 1948-74. (For comparison, also check out Skip James' take on "Crow Jane" posted earlier in the series):



From what I've heard, Piedmont blues' openness to other genres made it gentler and less raucous, a friendlier style that wouldn't scare small children the way that the unkempt Delta sound would. That's not a knock against either style, just an observation: One carried a switchblade, the other a comb that looked like a switchblade. You can easily draw a line from acoustic Delta blues to the electrified but still raw Chicago sound to rock 'n' roll. The gentler Piedmont blues, on the other hand, was more attractive to the East Coast folk movement of the 1960s—in part because of the inclusiveness of that scene, but also because they tended to confuse "authenticity" with "acoustic," the most famous example of which is Pete Seeger's (possibly apocryphal) threat to cut the cables with an axe to prevent Bob Dylan from playing electric at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival. Seeger hosted a TV show in the mid-1960s, called Rainbow Quest because in 1967 that was considered a good name for a TV show that wasn't about gay rights or puppet-based children's programming. It looks like most of the episode featuring Terry and McGhee is online; here's a couple of good moments. Here, Brownie leads the trio through the easygoing "Key To The Highway":



Also from Rainbow Quest, here's Sonny letting loose with the whoops on "Hootin' The Blues":



Here's "Stranger Blues"; I think this is also from Blues Masters, but that's a guess:

Update: "Darth Vader Feels Blue," a re-edited version of the death scene in Return Of The Jedi with some Sonny Terry action.

Previously:

#1: Sister Rosetta

#2: Skip James

#3: Bukka White

#4: Howlin' Wolf

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