OBITUARY : Brownie McGhee

Steve Voce
Tuesday 20 February 1996 00:02 GMT

The blues singer and guitarist Brownie McGhee and the harmonica player Blind Sonny Terry (Saunders Terrell) formed a partnership in 1939 when they met in New York, where a colony of migrant blues players from the South was building up as the country blues became popular with folk music and jazz audiences.

The partnership, one of the longest in jazz, proved musically inexhaustible, and the two men not only complemented each other's work, but joined in backing singers like Josh White, Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) and, in the folk field into which they crossed so easily, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

They became so popular that they criss-crossed the world on tour and became familiar figures on the British jazz scene in the Fifties and Sixties. The pair appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival and indeed anywhere where festivals were held.

They also depended on each other outside music. McGhee was lame as a result of having polio as a child, whilst Terry was completely blind, having lost his sight in his youth. "He does my walking," said McGhee, "and I do his looking."

McGhee had a pleasant voice which he accompanied with workmanlike rather than spectacular guitar. He dropped out of school when he was 13 and worked throughout the Deep South with travelling tent shows. His mild approach to the blues meant that he was able to vary his style to take in gospel music, and he sang both over many years. In 1934 he joined the Golden Voices Gospel Quartet, and later, preserving his real name for the sinful blues, recorded as Brother George and His Sanctified Singers. But his real inspiration had been the blues singing of Blind Boy Fuller. The two men eventually met in 1940 and when Ken Fuller died in 1941 of blood poisoning at the age of 32, his record company replaced him with McGhee. For a time McGhee even worked under the name of Blind Boy Fuller # 2.

Huddie Ledbetter drew McGhee and Terry into the white liberal circles where he himself had been so successful, and some of his powerful political beliefs rubbed off on McGhee who, like Ledbetter, stood up against the injustices of America's racial system, refusing to play before segregated audiences. Like them also, he and Terry found plenty of work in the fashionable coffee-houses and clubs of New York.

McGhee opened Brownie McGhee's School of Blues in Harlem and gave guitar lessons there, and the two men recorded for a variety of record labels. They appeared on Broadway in Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) and again in Langston Hughes's Simply Heaven, and were together in several films including A Face in the Crowd (1957). More doors opened during the Sixties when they were in demand for the college circuit as well as for folk and jazz festivals. They were helped in Britain by the fact that the Musicians' Union regarded them, with strange logic, as singers and not musicians, which enabled them to swerve around the ban on American musicians, and they were first brought to Britain by Chris Barber to tour with his band during the craze for skiffle music in the late Fifties.

Skiffle was followed by a boom in blues music, and McGhee and Terry were seldom short of work. They continued to work together, on television as well as in concert, until the mid-Seventies, when, after almost 40 years, the partnership broke up. Both men retired and Terry died in 1986.

Walter Brownie McGhee, guitarist and singer: born Knoxville, Tennessee 30 November 1915; married (five children); died San Francisco 18 February 1996.

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