During the folk music era, the Quiet Knight, a long-defunct club on the north side of Chicago located right next to the train tracks where the L would rumble by, hosted a list of who’s who acts. Among them: Leonard Cohen, Kris Kristofferson, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. Both of these masters of the blues are now musical history, their names in the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame: Sonny Terry inducted in 1987 and Brownie McGhee in 1997.
McGhee was a Tennessee boy, born in 1915, a fact that he didn’t know until he applied for a passport. As a child, polio shortened one of his legs and he originally had to use a wagon to get around. Later, after corrective surgery in 1937, he was able to walk without crutch or cane.
McGhee came from a musical family and learned to play guitar and piano. He started performing with his brother “Stick” when he was in eighth grade. He eventually became a full-time bluesman, going from gig to gig and often spending nights in a graveyard. In 1938, he headed for New York where he met Leadbelly, Pete Seeger and Blind Boy Fuller. That led to McGhee’s first session with Fuller on Okeh Records. Fuller’s harmonica player was Sonny Terry.
You haven’t heard the harmonica play acoustic blues until you’ve heard Terry play, with his signature whoops and hollers in between. In fact, you can listen to a performance of “Easy Rider” with Brownie McGee on YouTube, www.youtube.com/watch?v=YYDmbJjvv20&feature=related. That’s Pete Seeger sitting in.
Terry hailed from North Carolina, born Saunders Terrell in 1911 and blinded in accidents when he was a teenager. He learned harmonica from his father and started his performing career playing on the street. His meeting with McGhee in 1939 began a long-term collaboration between the two, although each man also pursued solo work. Terry recorded with other legends such as Woody Guthrie, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Johnny Winter and even performed on Broadway in “Finian’s Rainbow.”
In the 1940s, McGhee ran a music school in Harlem and he too added to his resume with an acting role in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Angel Heart.” The pair appeared on TV and toured extensively, one of the first blues acts to go to Europe. They recorded for a number of labels into the Sixties including Folkways, Choice, World Pacific, Bluesville and Fantasy. Finally, after working together for around four decades, they stopped speaking and split up.
Terry died in 1986, leaving behind multiple recordings and an instructional book titled “The Harp Styles of Sonny Terry,” still available on Amazon.com. McGee was living in California when he died in 1996. As for the Quiet Knight, although it too is history, you can still buy a recording of a live concert in the club by Bob Marley and the Wailers on Amazon.com, www.amazon.com/Live-at-Quiet-Knight-Club/dp/B0009V1ELY.