of Blues Harp
|This is the bio note on Sonny Terry from my harmonica
transcription/instruction book Masters of
the Blues Harp, which has a
transcription of his Bottom Blues from Climbin' Up (Savoy
Jazz 1137 w / Brownie McGhee). - Glenn Weiser
Sonny Terry, the best-known harmonica player from the Southeast, was
born Saunders Terrell in 1911 in Greensboro, North Carolina. His father played
jigs and reels on harmonica, and taught the instrument to Sonny, who had
also been singing at church tent meetings. When two separate accidents
blinded him in his youth, the harmonica was his only solace. "In
them days I just as soon died-except for my harmonica. It was like a
friend who didnt give a damn if I could see or not," he said.
He first heard the blues in Shelby, N.C., and after learning the style, began going to Raleigh and Durham to play for the hat on street corners. In 1934 he started playing with guitarist Blind Boy Fuller and also Gary Davis and moved to Durham soon thereafter.
Terrys long recording career began in 1937 when he and Fuller went to New York City to record for Vocalion and the American Record Company. The following year, he took part in John Hammonds celebrated Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall.
After returning to Durham, Terry met guitarist Brownie McGhee, with whom he was to form a long partnership. In 1941 Blind Boy Fuller died, and Terry and McGhee moved to New York a year later at the invitation of the folk group the Almanac Singers, where they cemented their relationship
In New York, the duo was embraced by the folk music scene that included Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, John and Alan Lomax, and others, and began performing and recording regularly. Terry also had a part in the 1946 Broadway production of Finian's Rainbow, which ran for over 1000 performances (Terry was paid $600 a week for his part-quite a bit of money in those days), and later in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with McGhee.
By the 1950s, they were performing outside of New York City and recording for several labels. Terry was by now one the best known and most successful blues harmonica players even though the duo was considered too folky by some black blues fans.
Terry and McGhee went strong through the sixties. They were regulars at folk and blues festivals, and produced a steady stream of recordings until the mid 1970s, when personal differences broke them up ( they did continue to play occasionally afterwards, though). In 1975 Sonny Terry and Kent Cooper produced the book Sonny Terrys Country Blues Harmonica, in which Terry movingly tells his life story and his harmonica techniques are detailed in a crude tablature system. Sonny also hit the silver screen in 1979 with cameo appearances in The Jerk.
In the early 80s he retired from his active schedule and only rarely performed. I did see him and Brownie in concert during this period, though-I remember his left leg wildly stomping with the beat throughout the whole show. He recorded Whoopin with Johnny Winter in 1984, and in 1985 was heard in the soundtrack of the Oscar-winning movie The Color Purple (longtime studio ace Tommy Morgan also played on the soundtrack, imitating Terrys sound with uncanny accuracy). Sonny Terry died in 1986, after having enjoyed one the best careers any harmonica player could have dreamt of.
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