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.
Life and career
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 eleven months of each year touring, and recording dozens of albums.
Despite their later fame as "pure" folk artists playing for white audiences, in the 1940s Terry and McGhee also attempted to be successful black recording performers, fronting a jump blues combo with honking saxophone and rolling piano, variously calling themselves "Brownie McGhee and his Jook House Rockers" or "Sonny Terry and his Buckshot Five," often with Champion Jack Dupree and Big Chief Ellis. They also appeared in the original Broadway productions of Finian's Rainbow and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
During the blues revival of the 1960s, Terry and McGhee were very popular on the concert and music festival circuits, occasionally adding new material but usually remaining faithful to their roots and their audience. With Sonny Terry, he appeared in the 1979 Steve Martin comedy The Jerk. In 1987, McGhee gave a small but memorable performance as ill-fated blues singer Toots Sweet in the supernatural thriller movie, Angel Heart.
Happy Traum, a former guitar student of Brownie's, edited a blues guitar instruction guide and songbook for him. Using a tape recorder, Traum had McGhee instruct and, between lessons, talk about his life and the blues. Guitar Styles of Brownie McGhee was published in New York in 1971. The autobiographical section features Brownie talking about growing up, his musical beginnings, and a history of the early blues period (1930s onward).
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