Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee

One of the most fondly remembered duos in the history of American roots music, the late SONNY TERRY & BROWNIE McGHEE underwent familiar individual hardships before their partnership became the toast of the 60s folk-blues revival. Accidentally blinded in both eyes by his mid-teens, TERRY scratched a living as a street-corner bluesman with a wildly expressive (and highly influential) harmonica habit. Described by legendary musicologist ALAN LOMAX as “that greatest of harp blowers”, his subsequent link-up with guitarist BLIND BOY FULLER not only drew interest from record labels but catalysed his future partnership with BROWNIE McGHEE, a polio victim who himself overcame a major handicap to become one of the leading blues guitarists of his generation.
Having initially met in 1939, the pair subsequently based themselves in New York where they recorded both together and independently for various labels. While TERRY made his acting debut in a post-war Broadway production, the man’s harmonica was also much in demand from the likes of WOODY GUTHRIE, CISCO HOUSTON and PETE SEEGER (one can hear the players on a 1950s LP, GET TOGETHER {*6}.
As the 50s turned into the 60s, the TERRY-McGHEE duo increasingly catered to the enthusiastic demands of the folk crowd, releasing a series of acoustic folk and folk-blues albums and playing the requisite festivals. While McGHEE had also ventured on to the Broadway stage in the mid-50s, the pair’s writing talents belatedly made it to the big screen via Sidney Poitier’s directorial debut, The Buck And The Preacher (1972) and thespian-turned-director Raymond St. Jacques’ Deep South crime drama, Book Of Numbers (1973).
For his 1977 classic, `Stroszek’, iconic German director Werner Herzog substituted his usual soundtrack providers, POPOL VUH, for the rootsier tones of TERRY and CHET ATKINS, in what was to be the harmonica master’s sole attempt at film scoring. While they’d acrimoniously put to bed their professional partnership in the mid-70s, TERRY and McGHEE made their belated screen acting debut with blues singing cameos in the Steve Martin comedy The Jerk (1979). Into his seventh decade as a performer, TERRY subsequently passed away on March 12, 1986 after a final appearance in multi-Oscar-nominated Alice Walker adaptation The Color Purple (1985). Although McGHEE’s final screen appearance came a matter of months later in Alan Parker’s demonic odyssey Angel Heart (1987), he was to survive his old sparring partner by a full decade, dying from cancer on February 16, 1996.
© MC Strong 2008/BG+MCS-LCS // rev-up MCS May2013

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