Sonny Terry Biography

Saunders Terrell, 24 October 1911, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA, d. 12 March 1986, New York City, New York, USA. By the age of 16, Sonny Terry was virtually blind following two accidents, which encouraged his concentration on music. After his father’s death, Terry worked on medicine shows, and around 1937 teamed up with Blind Boy Fuller, moving to Durham, North Carolina, to play the streets with Fuller, Gary Davis and washboard player George Washington (Bull City Red). Terry made his recording debut in December 1937 as Fuller’s harmonica player. His vocalized tones were interspersed with a distinctive falsetto whoop, and he continued in this fashion until Fuller’s death in 1941. By Terry’s good fortune, Fuller was in jail when John Hammond Jnr. wished to recruit him for the 1938 Spirituals To Swing concert, and Terry took his place. His inextricably interwoven harmonica playing and singing were a sensation, but had little immediate effect on his career, although OKeh Records did record him as a name artist. In 1942, Terry was to appear at a concert in Washington, DC, and J.B. Long, who managed them both, suggested that Brownie McGhee should lead Terry.

This led to a booking in New York, where both men relocated, and to the formation of their long-term musical partnership. In New York Terry recorded, as leader and sideman, for many black-orientated labels, but his first New York sides were made for Moe Asch of Folkways Records with accompaniment by Woody Guthrie, and this was a pointer to the future. By the late 50s, Terry and McGhee had effectively ceased to perform for black audiences, and presented their music as ‘folk blues’. This was seen as a sell-out by those who demanded uncompromisingly ‘black’ music from blues singers. However, an objective examination of their repertoire reveals a large number of songs that had been recorded for black audiences in an R&B setting, while the children’s songs and country dance music Terry recorded for Asch remain a valuable documentation. Even so, Terry’s singing voice (by now, now no longer falsetto) was rather coarse, and sometimes badly pitched. McGhee and Terry were not close friends, and in the later days they actively disliked one another even to the point of bickering onstage; nevertheless, their partnership brought the blues to a vast audience worldwide and the existing catalogue is vital to any student of folk blues.

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

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