Brownie McGhee Biography

Walter Brown McGhee, 30 November 1915, Knoxville, Tennessee, USA, d. 16 February 1996, Oakland, California, USA. McGhee learned guitar from his father, and started a musical career early on, playing in church before he was 10 years old, and on the road with medicine shows, carnivals and minstrel troupes in his early teens. His travels took him into the Carolinas, and his time there proved very influential in moulding his musical style. His younger brother was Granville ‘Sticks’ McGhee, also a singer and blues guitarist. He met Sonny Terry in 1939, and their partnership was to become one of the most enduring in blues. The following year, he made his first records, reminiscent of those of Blind Boy Fuller; indeed some of them bore the credit ‘Blind Boy Fuller No.2’. Also around this time, he settled in New York, where his career took a rather different turn, as he took up with a group of black musicians - including Terry, Lead Belly and Josh White - favoured by the then small white audience for the blues. They also became part of the Folkways Records cognoscenti with Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. For a number of years, he catered very successfully both for this audience, playing acoustic blues in an older style, and for an entirely separate one.

Throughout the late 40s and early 50s, he recorded electric blues and R&B aimed at black record buyers. In retrospect, it is this second type that stands up best, and indeed, some of his records from this period rank among the finest blues to come out of New York in the post-war years. He was also very prolific as an accompanist, playing superb lead guitar on records by other artists such as Champion Jack Dupree, Big Chief Ellis and Alonzo Scales, as well as his brother ‘Sticks’. His partnership with Terry became more firmly established during this period, and, as the original market for blues and R&B faded, they carved a very strong niche for themselves, playing concerts, festivals and clubs, and making albums aimed at the growing audience for folk music. For many years, they travelled the world and made record after record, establishing their names among the best-known of all blues artists. However, critical opinion seems agreed that their music suffered to a large degree during this period, as it was diluted for such a wide international audience and successive recordings trod similar ground.

After making many of their successful recordings for Vanguard Records, the duo then appeared widely in musical theatre productions, including Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Finian’s Rainbow and Simply Heaven. They also contributed to the soundtracks of films including Book Of Numbers, Lead Belly, Buck And The Preacher and A Face In The Crowd. McGhee’s partnership with Terry eventually ended in the mid-70s after a build-up of internal tensions. While Terry continued to work until his death in 1986 McGhee retired to Oakland, California. One of his last projects was as an actor in the movie Angel Heart. He played the part of musician Toots Sweet. He was in the process of making a live comeback when he was struck by cancer which resulted in his death early in 1996. Of all the great bluesmen McGhee’s voice had an incredibly warm tone, if he had chosen to be pop crooner or a ballad singer he would most certainly have succeeded. His albums with Terry are the very pinnacle of folk blues.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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