Today is the birthday of Walter Brown “Brownie” McGhee (1915-1996). A native of Knoxville, TN he learned guitar as a child at the hands of his father, a professional musician, and his uncle, who built him his own gitty box out of scraps. In his early twenties he became a professional musician himself, travelling with carnivals and tent shows like the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, a seminal black vaudeville touring outfit. In the late 30s, he came under the wing of Blind Boy Fuller. When the latter passed away in 1940, McGhee inherited not only his Piedmont blues style, but his harmonica player Sonny Terry. McGhee and Terry were to perform on and off as a team through the end of the 1970s. In the 40s their base was New York City, where they bunked with Leadbelly, all three of them recording and performing with Woody Guthrie as the Headline Singers. Even as they were essaying the purer, rural folk-blues style, though, they were also recording hot jump-blues dance records, at least early on. In 1955, McGhee was cast in the original Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (probably through the influence of Burl Ives). The folk and blues revival of the late 50s and 60s kept McGhee and Terry busier than ever. In later years, McGhee was even cast in a number of Hollywood films, such as Steve Martin’s The Jerk (1979) and the 1987 thriller Angel Heart. He continued playing until right before he died in 1996.
Now here are Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry performing a medley of “Red River Blues” and “Crow Jane”:
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.