The (Other Half of a) Dynamic Duo
Guitarist Brownie McGhee was the other half of one of the most enduring duos in blues performances with harmonica player Saunders Terrel carrying the Piedmont school of blues throughout their wide travels.
He was born Walter Brown McGhee in Knoxville, Tennessee on the last day of November in 1915. Polio left him with a deformed right leg and his future blues playing brother, "Slick", transported crippled Brownie in a wagon. Along with circuses and medicine shows the adolescent Brownie worked in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels.
During the 1930's he was doing pick-up work wherever, basically undergoing an apprenticeship, not the star that Big Bill Broonzy was in Chicago at this time.
He became Blind Boy Fuller II for J.B. Long's productions after the namesake died in 1941. And the next year in New York was the beginning of the collaboration with Sonny Terry (with whom he did in this persona a hit memorial song: "Death of Blind Boy Fuller"). Alan Lomax was recording a Library of Congress project, and these two joined Leadbelly for a historic session.
They remained in the Big Apple where they worked in coffee houses with many of the progressive thinking giants of folk music, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Cisco Houston. In 1942, they, like other recording artists, had a double faced scare, the war effort curtailed private use of shellac (needed for records), and because jukeboxes were proliferating like rabbits, the American Federation of Musicians went on strike over what they thought was an incursion on live performers. Fortunately next year saw these two bans removed.
Gary Davis, now a Reverend, was often backed by McGhee doing Gospel music. (Later, blues aficionado Stefan Grossman lured Davis back to his secular roots.)
1974 saw the reunion in New York of Brownie with his brother, Sticks. They recorded his hit, "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" (Mike Bloomfield's Electric Flag did a version). It was an even bigger hit in its re-recording of 1952 on the burgeoning Atlantic Label, which launched the new R & B company unto the seas of success.
Source: The Blues, Roots and Inspiration, John Collis; Salamander Books Ltd., London: 1997