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All Music Guide:
Brownie McGhee's death in 1996 was an enormous loss in the blues field. Although he had been semi-retired and suffering from stomach cancer, the guitarist was still the leading Piedmont-style bluesman on the planet, venerated worldwide for his prolific activities both on his own and with his longtime partner, blind harpist Sonny Terry. Together, McGhee and Terry worked for decades in an acoustic folk-blues bag, singing ancient ditties like "John Henry" and "Pick a Bale of Cotton" for appreciative audiences worldwide. But McGhee was capable of a great deal more. Throughout the immediate postwar era, he cut electric blues and R&B on the New York scene, even enjoying a huge R&B hit in 1948 with "My Fault" for Savoy (Hal "Cornbread" Singer handled tenor sax duties on the 78).
Walter Brown McGhee grew up in Kingsport, Tennessee. He contracted polio at the age of four, which left him with a serious limp and plenty of time away from school to practice the guitar chords that he'd learned from his father, Duff McGhee. Brownie's younger brother, Granville McGhee, was also a talented guitarist who later hit big with the romping "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee"; he earned his nickname, "Stick," by pushing his crippled sibling around in a small cart propelled by a stick.
A 1937 operation sponsored by the March of Dimes restored most of McGhee's mobility. Off he went as soon as he recovered, traveling and playing throughout the Southeast. His jaunts brought him into contact with washboard player George "Oh Red" (or "Bull City Red") Washington in 1940, who in turn introduced McGhee to talent scout J.B. Long. Long got him a recording contract with OKeh/Columbia in 1940; his debut session in Chicago produced a dozen tracks over two days.
Long's principal blues artist, Blind Boy Fuller, died in 1941, precipitating Okeh issuance of some of McGhee's early efforts under the sobriquet of Blind Boy Fuller No. 2. McGhee cut a moving tribute song, "Death of Blind Boy Fuller," shortly afterward. McGhee's third marathon session for OKeh in 1941 paired him for the first time on shellac with whooping harpist Terry for "Workingman's Blues."
The pair resettled in New York in 1942. They quickly got connected with the city's burgeoning folk music circuit, working with Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Leadbelly. After the end of World War II, McGhee began to record most prolifically, both with and without Terry, for a myriad of R&B labels: Savoy (where he cut "Robbie Doby Boogie" in 1948 and "New Baseball Boogie" the next year), Alert, London, Derby, Sittin' in With, and its Jax subsidiary in 1952, Jackson, Bobby Robinson's Red Robin logo (1953), Dot, and Harlem, before crossing over to the folk audience during the late '50s with Terry at his side. One of McGhee's last dates for Savoy in 1958 produced the remarkably contemporary "Living with the Blues," with Roy Gaines and Carl Lynch blasting away on lead guitars and a sound light years removed from the staid folk world.
McGhee and Terry were among the first blues artists to tour Europe during the '50s, and they ventured overseas often after that. Their plethora of late-'50s and early-'60s albums for Folkways, Choice, World Pacific, Bluesville, and Fantasy presented the duo in acoustic folk trappings only, their Piedmont-style musical interplay a constant (if gradually more predictable) delight. McGhee didn't limit his talents to concert settings. He appeared on Broadway for three years in a production of playwright Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955, and later put in a stint in the Langston Hughes play Simply Heaven. Films (Angel Heart, Buck and the Preacher) and an episode of the TV sitcom Family Ties also benefited from his dignified presence. The wheels finally came off the partnership of McGhee and Terry during the mid-'70s. Toward the end, they preferred not to share a stage with one another (Terry would play with another guitarist, then McGhee would do a solo), let alone communicate. One of McGhee's final concert appearances came at the 1995 Chicago Blues Festival; his voice was a tad less robust than usual, but no less moving, and his rich, full-bodied acoustic guitar work cut through the cool evening air with alacrity. His like won't pass this way again.
Walter Brown ("Brownie") McGhee (November 30, 1915 - February 16, 1996) was a Piedmont blues singer and guitarist, best known for his collaborations with the harmonica player Sonny Terry.
Life and career 
Brownie McGhee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee and grew up in Kingsport, Tennessee. As a child he had polio, which incapacitated his leg. His brother Granville "Sticks" or "Stick" McGhee was nicknamed for pushing young Brownie around in a cart. His father, George McGhee, was a factory worker known around University Avenue for playing guitar and singing. Brownie's uncle made him a guitar from a tin marshmallow box and a piece of board. McGhee spent much of his youth immersed in music, singing with local harmony group the Golden Voices Gospel Quartet and teaching himself to play guitar. A March of Dimes-funded leg operation enabled McGhee to walk.
At age 22, Brownie McGhee became a traveling musician, working in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and befriending Blind Boy Fuller, whose guitar playing influenced him greatly. After Fuller's death in 1941, J. B. Long of Columbia Records had McGhee adopt his mentor's name, branding him "Blind Boy Fuller No. 2." By that time, McGhee was recording for Columbia's subsidiary Okeh Records in Chicago, but his real success came after he moved to New York in 1942, when he teamed up with Sonny Terry, whom he had known since 1939 when Sonny was Blind Boy Fuller's harmonica player. The pairing was an overnight success; as well as recording, they toured together until around 1980. As a duo, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee did most of their work from 1958 until 1980, spending 11 months of each year touring, and recording dozens of albums.
Despite their later fame as "pure" folk artists playing for white audiences, in the 1940s Terry and McGhee also attempted to be successful black recording performers, fronting a jump blues combo with honking saxophone and rolling piano, variously calling themselves "Brownie McGhee and his Jook House Rockers" or "Sonny Terry and his Buckshot Five," often with Champion Jack Dupree and Big Chief Ellis. They also appeared in the original Broadway productions of Finian's Rainbow and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
During the blues revival of the 1960s, Terry and McGhee were very popular on the concert and music festival circuits, occasionally adding new material but usually remaining faithful to their roots and their audience. With Sonny Terry, he appeared in the 1979 Steve Martin comedy The Jerk. In 1987, McGhee gave a small but memorable performance as ill-fated blues singer Toots Sweet in the supernatural thriller movie, Angel Heart. He appeared in a 1988 episode of "Family Ties" titled "The Blues Brother" in which he played fictional blues musician Eddie Dupre, as well as a 1989 episode of Matlock entitled "The Blues Singer."
Happy Traum, a former guitar student of Brownie's, edited a blues guitar instruction guide and songbook for him. Using a tape recorder, Traum had McGhee instruct and, between lessons, talk about his life and the blues. Guitar Styles of Brownie McGhee was published in New York in 1971. The autobiographical section features Brownie talking about growing up, his musical beginnings, and a history of the early blues period (1930s onward).
One of McGhee's final concert appearances was at the 1995 Chicago Blues Festival.
McGhee died from stomach cancer in February 1996 in Oakland, California at age 80; he missed his planned return trip to Australia.