BROWNIE MCGHEE (By Phil Davies)
Born Walter Brown McGhee, 30 November 1915, Knoxville, Tennessee
Think Brownie McGhee and you also think Sonny Terry, the original blues "brothers". Their folk blues dup made standards like John Henry and Pick A Bale Of Cotton famous around the world but both had fascinating solo careers. Dik has already covered Sonny Terrry in an earlier BTBWY (born October 24, 1911).
Walter grew up in Tennessee where his father George (aka Duff) was a construction worker who travelled wherever there was work to be had. His wife Zelda gave birth to another future blues legend Granville "Sticks" McGhee in 1918.the family settled in Kingsport in eastern Tennessee. The family loved music, a Victrola player blasted out Bessie Smith, Lonnie Johnson and hobo king Jimmie Rodgers. Duff also played guitar and sang, both at home and at functions.with a mixed race band. uncle John Evans played fiddle and made a banjo for young Brownie. Duff's pal Les Riddles also helped (he was a pal of A.P. Carter's). He contracted polio at the age of four, which left him with a serious limp and plenty of time away from school to practice the guitar and piano chords that he'd learned from his father Duff . Brownie's younger brother, Granville was also a talented guitarist (he later hit big with the romping Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee); he earned his nickname, "Stick," by pushing his crippled sibling around in a small cart propelled by a stick.
A 1937 operation sponsored by the March of Dimes restored most of McGhee's mobility. He played around the South with tent shows and joined his dad's gospel group. His particular hero Blind Boy Fuller drew him to his hometown of Durham N Carolina. He met talent scout J.B. Long (also Fuller's manager) who eventually got him a recording contract with OKeh/Columbia in 1940; his debut session in Chicago produced many tracks over two days including a rewrite of the Washboard Sam classic as Picking My Tomatoes. Other goodies were Me and My Dog, My Barking Bulldog Blues, Step It Up and Go, Back Door Stranger (based on an old English folk song My Good Man, sung to the tune of Digging My Spuds, later performed by Little Walter as Tell Me Mama). Brownie got to know Fuller's harp man Sonny Terry.
Long's main man Fuller died in 1941 (aged 32 ,of blood poisoning), Brownie recorded a session in Chicago with Fuller's old National guitar, cutting Death Of Blind Boy Fuller as a tribute. Not satisfied with this ,Okeh decided to rename Brownie as Blind Boy Fuller No.2. McGhee's third marathon session for OKeh in New York (in 1941) paired him for the first time on shellac with blind harpist Sonny Terry for Workingman's Blues. The pair stayed in New York and quickly got connected with the city's folk music circuit, working with Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, Rev. Gary Davis and Woody Guthrie.
After the end of World War II, McGhee began to record most prolifically, both with and without his partner for many R&B labels. Throughout the immediate postwar era, he cut electric blues and R&B on the New York scene, even enjoying a huge R&B hit in 1948 with "My Fault" for Savoy (where he cut "Robbie Doby Boogie" in 1948 and "New Baseball Boogie" the next year). he also recorded for labels like Alert, London, Derby, Red Robin (1953), Dot, and Harlem, before crossing over to the folk audience during the late '50s with Terry back at his side. One of McGhee's last dates for Savoy in 1958 produced the remarkably contemporary "Living with the Blues," with Roy Gaines and Carl Lynch blasting away on lead guitars and a sound light years removed from the folk world. He also recorded under names like Spider Sam, Big Tom Collins and Blind Boy Williams to avoid label/contract hassles.He was probably the most prolific original country blues man in the 50s (he also cut many gospel sides). Brownie also ran a guitar school in Harlem
McGhee and Terry were among the first blues artists to tour Europe during the 1950s, and they ventured overseas often after that, touring the coffee house/college/festival circuit. Their plethora of late '50s/early '60s albums for Folkways, Choice, World Pacific, Bluesville, and Fantasy presented the duo in acoustic folk trappings only. McGhee didn't limit his talents to concert settings. He appeared on Broadway for three years in a production of playwright Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955 and later put in another play Simply Heaven, by Langston Hughes. Films (Angel Heart, Buck and the Preacher) and in an episode of the TV sitcom Family Ties.
The wheels finally came off the partnership of McGhee and Terry during the mid-'70s. They were often criticised for being "too professional in their approach". Brownie always said "no point being a blues singer if nobody can hear what you are singing!".
Toward the end, they preferred not to share a stage with one another (Terry would play with another guitarist, then McGhee would do a solo), let alone communicate. Terry died in 1986, leaving behind a huge legacy of recordings, concerts and tv/doc appearances. One of McGhee's final concert appearances came at the 1995 Chicago Blues Festival. Brownie died from stomach cancer on February 16th, 1996 (some sources say 23rd) , in Oakland, California leaving behind a wonderful and varied legacy. Often regarded as half on the great folk blues duo Brownie's solo work is well worth checking out. he also played and sang with many great names, Leadbelly, Paul Robeson, Big Maybelle, Lightnin' Hopkins, Champion Jack Dupree, Bob Gaddy and his brother Sticks McGhee
Recommended Listening (solo work):
The Essential Brownie McGhee -A Black Woman's Man on Indigo cd. 24 tracks, great notes by Neil Slaven
Folkway years 1945-59 - 17 track cd - Smithsonian
Complete Brownie McGhee - Columbia Legacy, has the Blind Boy Fuller #2 sides also
Jumpin The Blues - Savoy lp
|These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
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