Obituary: Brownie McGhee

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The Independent Online
Brownie McGhee's partner Sonny Terry was not blind, writes John Pilgrim [further to the obituary by Steve Voce, 20 February]. Although his eyesight was very poor he was proud of what little he had and hated those Fifties record sleeves which billed him as Blind Sonny Terry.

He would have blinked his relatively good eye somewhat violently had he heard himself referred to as a jazz musician. The more urbane McGhee had jazz connections - one of his hits Sportin' Life was based on an Ellington tune - but even so he did not regard himself as a jazz musician, while Terry quite forcibly distinguished between the blues and jazz traditions.

Nor did they depend on each other outside music. For a start Brownie lived in Oakland and Sonny in New York. By the Seventies relations between them were catastrophic and their extraordinary musical rapport disintegrated as they refused to go home on the same aeroplanes, cut discordantly across each other's solo lines, and became effectively two separate acts offering only token support to each other on stage. They refused to speak to each other at all off stage.

The actual basis of the quarrel is lost but differences of temperament must have underlain it. Sonny was a country boy whose showpiece was a musical evocation of a fox chase. Brownie was a city smoothy who recorded tough R'n'B numbers for a black audience while happily recording "folk- blues" for a white one. Moreover, McGhee never worked as Blind Boy Fuller # 2 although some of his records were marketed that way - his guitar technique was quite different.

The really amazing achievement of the two men was the way they rebuilt their audience in Europe when the popularity of the Mississippi-derived Chicago blues left the Piedmont players unfashionable. During my own three tours with them we played an astonishing mixture of concert halls, sleazy nightclubs, large festivals, small folk clubs, miners' welfare institutes, and rather unexpectedly the London School of Economics. In Nottingham, Brownie once played with a miners' rock group until 3am. No gig was too large or too small.