February 16, 1996 – Walter Brownie McGhee was born on November 30, 1915 in Knoxville, Tennessee and grew up in Kingsport, Tennessee.
As a child of about four he contracted polio, which incapacitated his leg. His brother Granville “Sticks” or “Stick” McGhee, who also later became a musician and composer of the famous song, “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-dee,” 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. He also played five string banjo, ukulele and studied piano. 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.
Late in his life, McGhee began appearing in small film or TV roles. 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. In his review of Angel Heart, critic Roger Ebert singled out McGhee for praise, declaring that he delivered a “performance that proves [saxophonist] Dexter Gordon isn’t the only old musician who can act.” McGhee 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.