Sonny Terry - vocals, harmonica; Brownie McGhee - vocals, guitar, kazoo
Both Saunders Terrell AKA Sonny Terry, born in 1911 and Walter "Brownie" McGhee, born in 1915, began pursuing music from an early age for similar reasons. In Sonny Terry's case, injuries to his eyes which resulted in blindness by age 16, and in Brownie McGhee's case, a paralyzed leg as a result of polio, prevented them from pursuing work as farm hands or factory workers, the jobs available to most black men at the time. With such limited opportunities, each pursued music in order to earn a living. Terry and McGhee originated from North Carolina and Tennessee respectively, and they favored the Appalachian region's Piedmont blues style, which unlike the Mississippi Delta blues, had a less raucous, gentler sound and was open to outside influences including ragtime and country music. Both musicians became protégés of the guitarist Blind Boy Fuller and favored his East Coast Piedmont style. Following Fuller's death in 1941. McGhee, a folk-blues singer and gifted acoustic guitar player and Terry, who played harmonica and supplemented his singing with distinctive whoops and hollers, teamed up, creating a distinctive sound of their own. The combination of Terry's raspier vocals and raw freight-train harmonica and McGhee's softer, more melodic approach created a contrast that was also evident in their personal relationship. Regardless of their musical chemistry, Terry and McGhee were known for their mutual antagonism, arguing with each other both on and off stage. Despite this, the duo enjoyed astounding career longevity, performing and recording together for nearly 40 years and eventually becoming the most recognized duo in blues history. Over the course of those four decades, they recorded a surprisingly diverse catalogue of music. They also embraced other projects like appearing in the original Broadway productions of Finian's Rainbow and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, but are most revered for their traditional Piedmont blues material. During the folk and blues revivals of the late 1950s and 1960s, McGhee and Terry's recordings and performances began catching the attention of a much broader audience and they would become the most widely recognized duo in the history of the blues.
Recorded at the West Coast epicenter of the folk and blues revival, the Ash Grove on January 27, 1967, this second show of the evening captures Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee near their peak of popularity, occasionally adding contemporary material to their vast repertoire but primarily remaining faithful to their blues roots. The performance, which started late, begins humorously with a half-hearted apology from McGhee before easing into the first song of the set. They set begins in a relaxed manner with a loose variation on Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Long Lonesome Blues." Here the duo's musical interplay and McGhee's easy going and often-humorous vocal delivery of a long litany of problems and ailments is immediately engaging. They continue with McGhee's upbeat secular spiritual, "I Feel Alright," featuring a lyric about savoring the moment and reflecting the ultimate lesson of the blues; one cannot truly appreciate happiness without experiencing the opposite. In both of these songs and throughout the set, Terry's relentlessly expressive harmonica playing and occasional vocal whoops tangle with McGhee's syncopated guitar and engaging vocal delivery, creating a sum far greater than the individual parts.
Sexually suggestive double entendres abound in the duo's cover of Lonnie Johnson's "Jelly Roll Baker," before they tackle a more serious tale of flood dislocation in "Backwater Blues." Although Terry's harmonica is often lighthearted on many songs, here his playing is extraordinarily expressive, bordering on spine tingling. Unfortunately due to tape stock running out, this song is incomplete. When the recording continues Terry is well into "Easy Rider" and then Guitar Slim's 1954 hit, "The Things I Used To Do." The latter showcases Terry's ability to quickly interject effective harmonica lines between each vocal line; also evident on McGhee's up tempo "Custard Pie Blues," where both musicians sing together. "Baby, I Got My Eyes On You" is a wonderfully tough folk/blues shuffle, followed by Terry humoring the audience with a behind-the-scenes monologue about their Broadway stint in "Finnian's Rainbow." He then delivers his signature performance from that production, "Hootin' The Blues," a harp blowing highlight of this set.
McGhee takes lead vocal again on "Suffering For The Need Of Love," a prime example of his smooth, melodic style. "Under Your Hood," a comic encounter between a female cabdriver and her love-starved mechanic follows. Once again, the double entendres abound and the vocal and instrumental interaction is delightfully playful and humorous. The next number, "There's A Hole In The Wall," is another original, utilizing call and response vocals giving the song a distinct gospel-influenced feel.
As the set winds to a close, the duo deliver "Sportin Life Blues," one of the milestones and signature songs in their catalogue, surprising in that McGhee wrote this song of settling down and quitting his womanizing ways when he was only 15 years old! A similar statement can be made for "Baby I Knocked On Your Door," a classic tale of jealousy and revenge. The set concludes with an exemplary reading of "Rock Island Line," which features one of the strongest vocal arrangements of the set and superb musicianship. The audience coaxes one more from Terry and McGhee and they conclude the performance with another signature song. "I'm A Stranger Here," as the tape stock runs out.
Encapsulating Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee's many years of performing together, this 1967 recording will be of great interest to existing fans, but is also an excellent introduction for new listeners. Students of the Piedmont blues genre or acoustic country blues in general will find this thoroughly engaging as superb musicianship is evident throughout the set.
Written by Alan Bershaw