Sonny Terry

Jun 11th, 2011 | By | Category: Arts & Entertainment
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Sonny Terry1911-1986  Sonny Terry developed a unique sound on the harmonica, while melding folk and blues traditions, and with his long-time partner Brownie McGhee popularized the style for broad audiences nationwide and globally. He became the best-known harmonica player of his time, and one of the most famous folk/blues musicians ever, influencing subsequent generations of artists with his indelible passion and style.

Blinded in Childhood

Sonny Terry was born Saunders Terrell in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1911. His parents were poor farmers. His father played harmonica, offering up reels and jigs at local parties. The young Terry, who began singing at church tent meetings as early as age six, expressed a strong interest in the instrument and his father taught him to play. Terry lost his sight in one eye in an accident during his early years, and most of his sight in the other in a separate accident at age 16. He was forced to abandon his plans to become a farmer, and instead decided he would be a professional singer and harmonica player.

The family had moved to Shelby, North Carolina some time between 1915 and 1922, which is where Terry was first exposed to the blues. There he learned the southeast “Piedmont” style and songs from musicians in the city. He began playing with a white group at local fish fries, on the street for coins tossed in his hat, and in a “medicine show” appearing in Shelby and nearby communities. After his father died, Terry lived with his sister in Shelby. He also visited his brother in Wadesboro, near Charlotte, where in 1934 he met the well-known blues guitarist Blind Boy Fuller. At Fuller’s urging, Terry moved to Durham, was introduced to Fuller’s manager J.B. Long, and the two artists recorded together while also playing on the streets and at impromptu parties and performances in factories and workplaces. They were often joined by the accomplished washboard player, George Washington, better known as Bull City Red.

Terry’s unique style, dubbed “Whoopin’,” turned his instrument into a pure expression of his feelings. He vocalized through the harmonica, used it to imitate the sounds of trains and animals, and punctuated his playing with whoops and cries of passion, complemented by an ethereal falsetto singing voice. He accompanied Fuller to New York City in 1937 to record for the Vocalion label. At this time, the producer John Hammond was preparing his seminal “From Spirituals to Swing” concert, to be mounted at New York’s famous Carnegie Hall. Hammond journeyed to Durham to solicit Fuller’s participation, but found the guitarist in jail. Fortunately, Hammond met Terry instead, and asked him to join the show. Terry played the 1938 Carnegie Hall event with Bull City Red, performing one of his popular tunes, “Mountain Blues,” to a large audience of music aficionados.

Fuller died in 1940, by which time Terry had established a name for himself as a recording and performing artist, including a recording made for the Library of Congress. He was sufficiently well known to receive an invitation from the premiere black classical vocalist, Paul Robeson, to perform at a Washington, D.C. school event. Terry was accompanied to the event by another Durham guitarist, Brownie McGhee, who was expected to look after Terry. McGhee also found an opportunity to play, and must have made quite an impression: by the time they returned to Durham, they had been invited by the folk group The Almanac Singers for a show in New York.

To New York and Beyond

Arriving in 1941, Terry and McGhee were so well received in New York that they immediately found themselves steadily booked, performing with folk luminaries such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Cisco Houston. They rented a house on Manhattan’s Sixth Ave., and never returned to North Carolina. The duo appealed to a variety of audiences, including the white revivalist and folk roots movements, and their recordings sold successfully to black listeners beyond the Northeast (although some hard core blues fans felt they had drifted too far astray). They played clubs, folk and blues festivals, and concert halls, and soon expanded their presence to include acting in television commercials and the Broadway stage: Terry appeared in an Alka Seltzer commercial, and acted for almost two years in the mid-1940s Broadway run of “Finian’s Rainbow.” He was joined by McGhee in the production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in the mid-1950s. They recorded as a duo and separately during this period, for labels including Folkways, Savoy, Capitol, and Fantasy. Terry became a popular sideman on other artists’ albums, including such stars as Leadbelly and Harry Belafonte.

By this time, Terry and McGhee were the best-known blues duo of their era. A resurgent interest in traditional genres in the late-1950s and early 1960s helped to sustain this reputation, and even propel them to greater fame. They toured Europe, New Zealand, and Australia as well as the U.S., playing hundreds of dates every year while continuing to record, introducing new fans to folk and blues music worldwide. By the late 1970s, the stress of their schedule and the years had left their relationship strained, and the duo parted company. Terry took time to write an instructional manual, “The Harp Styles of Sonny Terry,” but had to relax his performing schedule as he entered the early 1980s. Texas bluesman Johnny Winter produced an album with Terry and Willie Dixon in 1984 Called “Whoopin’,” which introduced him to a new generation of blues devotees. Terry then played on the soundtrack of 1985’s Oscar winning “The Color Purple.” But his output was diminished up until his death in 1986, the same year in which he was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. His influence on blues and folk audiences, as well as generations of musicians and harmonica players, continues to this day.


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