Brownie McGhee | Everything you need to know about Blues Music
Brownie McGhee was a celebrated Piedmont-style bluesman and guitarist, widely regarded as one of the leading blues musicians of his time. Born as Walter Brown McGhee in Kingsport, Tennessee, he contracted polio at a young age, leaving him with a serious limp. However, he turned to guitar playing to pass his time, learning from his father Duff McGhee.
McGhee’s younger brother, Granville McGhee, also played guitar and helped him move around in a small cart propelled by a stick. In 1937, a March of Dimes operation restored most of McGhee’s mobility, and he started to travel and play music across the Southeast. In 1940, he met washboard player George “Oh Red” Washington, who introduced him to talent scout J.B. Long. This led to McGhee’s recording debut on OKeh/Columbia in 1940, where he recorded a dozen tracks over two days in Chicago.
After the death of blues artist Blind Boy Fuller, McGhee’s early efforts were released under the pseudonym Blind Boy Fuller No. 2. In 1941, McGhee paired for the first time with whooping harpist Sonny Terry for “Workingman’s Blues.” They moved to New York in 1942 and became part of the city’s growing folk music circuit, working with Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Leadbelly.
After World War II, McGhee recorded prolifically for several R&B labels, including Savoy, Alert, London, Derby, Sittin’ in With, Jax, Jackson, and Red Robin, both with and without Terry. During the late ’50s, he and Terry started to cross over to the folk audience. They were among the first blues artists to tour Europe during the ’50s, and their late-’50s and early-’60s albums for Folkways, Choice, World Pacific, Bluesville, and Fantasy presented the duo in acoustic folk trappings.
McGhee was also active in other artistic fields, including Broadway productions such as Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Langston Hughes’ Simply Heaven. He appeared in films like Angel Heart and Buck and the Preacher and even had a guest appearance in the TV sitcom Family Ties.