A major blues harmonica player whose music kept the rural traditions of the 1800s alive but was flexible enough to also record urban blues, Sonny Terry (1911-1986) is most famous for his longtime musical partnership with guitarist Brownie McGhee. Terry also had a notable solo career.
Born in Georgia, Sonny Terry, whose father played folk music on the harmonica, became totally blind by the age of 18. By then, he was skilled on his instrument, performing as a street musician and in touring medicine shows in the South. In the mid-1930s Terry played regularly with Blind Boy Fuller, with whom he made his recording debut. Producer John Hammond enlisted Terry for his 1938 Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall, exposure that helped his career. In 1939 Terry met Brownie McGhee and they played together on a fairly regular basis for the next 35 years.
Sonny Terry was part of the postwar folk music movement, working with Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. He kept busy during the 1950s, and he and McGhee were constantly in demand during the folk/blues revival of the 1960s.
The team of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee recorded prolifically, including for Bluesville, Fantasy, and Prestige. Their available CDs include At Sugar Hill, Just a Closer Walk with Thee, At the 2nd Fret, Back to New Orleans, Midnight Special, California Blues, Backwater Blues, and Mr. Brownie and Mr. Sonny. In addition Terry is showcased as a solo artist on Sonny’s Story, Sonny Is King (which includes Lightnin’ Hopkins), and Sonny Terry and His Mouth-Harp.
Although the Terry/McGhee duo broke up in the mid-1970s, Sonny Terry was active up until the time of his 1986 death.