Savoy Jazz 1204 – Brownie McGhee, “Jumpin’ the Blues”
When the name Brownie McGhee comes up in any discussions by blues mavens, it’s usually as the beginning of a longer word: brownieandsonny. McGhee and Terry were a factor in the field of folk music since the revivals of the forties and fifties, lasting as a team until a few years before Terry’s death. Brownie and Sonny were one of the longest running “marriages” in the music business, spanning some four decades – only Count Basie and Freddie Green were together longer! And yet that paired focus does both musicians a disservice by emphasizing only part of their respective careers as black American musicians. And the emphasis should be on “black”, for fully half of their respective musical lives were spent performing for black audiences.
Brownie McGhee has been a factor in folk music (in its broadest sense) and black popular music from his earliest days. While living in Tennessee as a youngster, he often paired with one Lesley T. Riddle, a black guitarist/singer/mandolinist of great talent. That in itself is of no major consequence, except that Riddle often worked for one A.P. Carter. Les [a/k/a Esley] drove Carter’s car as he collected songs… Riddle was often a [cultural] bridge between A.P. Carter and blacks. Brownie occasionally went along with Carter and Riddle as well, and in other ways helped in song-collecting. That plugs Brownie in some fashion into one of the major beginnings of commercial white country music (“hillbilly”, as it was known then) – The Carter Family.
As an artist in the world of black popular music, McGhee also had an impact – at least in the New York City area. There was a coterie that built up around him, often learned how to play from him, and then spun off onto careers of their own. Musicians such as Larry Dale, Bob Gaddy, Big Chief Ellis, Bobby Harris, [his] brother Stick(s) McGhee, Bob Foster, Leroy Dallas, etc. all worked or recorded with Brownie at some point in the forties. An example of how far the centrifuging could be would be pianist Lannie Scott – from working and recording with Brownie [in the 40’s] to then with trumpeter Jonah Jones [quartet] in the seventies (Scott died ca. 1974). Also, McGhee worked some as a session guitarist – not to the extent of a Mickey Baker or Jimmy Spruill, but there were a number of sessions that included a couple of Leroy Kirkland-led dates backing Big Maybelle for OKeh!
Both the 20’s/30’s in Tennessee and the 40’s/50’s in New York City are part of the whole McGhee career that have nothing to do with pairing with Sonny Terry. I emphasize this not to negate that aspect of his life (or Sonny’s, either!), but just to underscore the fact that there were other things that went on that involved Brownie and music, Brownie with other musicians, without Sonny. This album is a demonstration of one of those (today) lesser-exposed segments of the McGhee musical life.
Walter Brown McGhee was born November 30, 1915 in Knoxville, TN. About two years later, the family moved to the newly-developing town of Kingsport – Brownie’s father was a construction worker. Between phonograph records and a weekend guitarist/singer father, music was an important part of the growing McGhee household – there was even a piano in the home, plus a fiddle-playing visiting uncle. Brownie went through the seemingly obligatory stage of making his own instrument out of tins or boxes, and wire or rubber bands. As a child, he contracted polio, which affected his right leg and kept him house-bound for a few years. He was an early beneficiary of The March of Dimes campaign, for an operation on the leg in the mid-thirties was effective in allowing Brownie to finally walk without crutches.
One of the side effects of his illness and resultant lack of mobility was McGhee’s self-immersion in music. And as he has said, after the success of the operation, “I picked up the guitar and I haven’t quit walking yet.” Thus began the life of a full-time traveling musician. He moved through eastern Tennessee, West Virginia, and western Virginia before landing in Winston-Salem, N.C. There, he hooked up with Jordan Webb, a local harmonica player, and they meandered towards Burlington and Durham. That’s where Brownie’s career took a big step forward in professionalism. There he was introduced to J.B. Long, the manager of Blind Boy Fuller, the most successful recording artist of the southeastern states.
As a result of that introduction, McGhee went with Fuller to Chicago in 1940 for his first recordings (with his own band of Webb and Robert Young/”Washboard Slim”). In an odd quirk, Brownie did his first session at the same time that Fuller did his last. On Fuller’s death from kidney failure in 1941, Long continued to get Brownie on record… but insisted that the sides be released as by “Blind Boy Fuller No. 2”. And it was not until a few years after the death of Fuller that he made a firm link on a professional level with Sonny Terry. Up to that point, Terry recorded only with Fuller’s band [w. Bull City Red/George Washington on washboard], or with friends of Fuller like Sonny Jones, or Floyd Council. In 1942, Sonny was invited to perform at a show in Washington, DC that included Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson (remember that Terry had already been to NYC for one of John Hammond’s late 30’s “Spirituals to Swing” concerts, and so was “known”). Since J.B. Long could not get away from his job at the dry-goods stores at that time, he asked Brownie to go along with Sonny on the trip – a potentially difficult one for a blind man. Once there, McGhee was asked to back Sonny and even do a tune on the show himself. Alan Lomax got the two of them to record for the Library of Congress and the rest, as they say, is history for the duo.
In fact, McGhee and Terry never went back to North Carolina, but headed North to New York City, their base for decades. Sonny got a part in Finian’s Rainbow on Broadway, and Brownie went into the recording studios. While their first commercial recording together was for Savoy and very much in the duo southeastern mold (to be released on a later set), it was a very short time before Brownie began updating his music. Most of his Savoy sessions were actually without Terry – the two of them had a different arena. The focus of this particular album is on bands with sax players backing McGhee, groups working more in the [then] prevalent “jump” vein. In a very broad brush, one might say “Blind Boy Fuller meets Louis Jordan”, for Brownie was attempting to bring his southeastern blues music more into the mainstream of late-forties black popular music. And with some success, as these recordings demonstrate.
A track-by-track commentary would take up too much time and space. More meaningful are two reviews of Savoy 78s taken from BILLBOARD magazines of the period. Note that each side is “graded” on a scale of 1-100 in regard to potential jukebox success;
My Fault – Brownie McGhee (Savoy 5551) – ’75: Brownie talks out a race pop in husky accents, backed by a rough-and-ready small combo.
Robbie-Doby Boogie – Brownie McGhee (Savoy 5550) – ’85: Blues for Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby comes off better than most of this sort of thing. Lusty McGhee shout, solid rhythm backing.
These contemporary reviews cover most of what need be said of such McGhee performances. Cut for the juke box and for dancing, they alternate between medium or up tempo for jitterbugging, and slow for the grind… some things never change!
The personnel runs the gamut of the top names to the obscure. Hal Singer is well known for his Savoy hit, “Cornbread” (Savoy SJL 1147), while little is known of Pritchard Cheeseman. Sax expert Bob Porter tells me that Cheeseman played around Harlem in big and little bands, bebop and blues… a capable journeyman. Even more obscure is the sax player not identified in the files on the 12/20/48 date! Pianist George Rhodes went on to become Sammy Davis Jr.’s music director on TV, while Lannie Scott has already been mentioned above. Big Daddy Melvin Merritt is a biographical blank so far – apparently he also played drums. Bassist Gene Ramey was with Jay McShann in the Charlie Parker days, but he was doing a lot of studio work at this time.
What you, the record buyer, have in your hands is a collection of singles by Brownie McGhee, a black musician in the forties, half heretofore unreleased. In retrospect, that time period can be looked upon as one of transitions in black music. The [older] regional styles of blues were being pushed out of the national record market by jazz-influenced artists like T-Bone Walker or Wynonie Harris* (and, later, by B.B. King). Jazz was losing its mass popular audience – [possibly due to] the demise of big bands, the A.F.M. strikes, the dance hall taxes of the war, the rise of bebop, even the post-war dismantling of public trolley lines have been offered as reasons – as the singer’s popularity rose. Brownie McGhee took a stab at swimming in the main stream of black popular music (n.b. – many of the tunes are not 12-bar, AAB blues) with Savoy** and also a number of other labels. There was, though, steadier money to be made on the folk circuit, and McGhee went with that… [usually] in the company of Sonny Terry.
It is not for lack of quality that these sides did not do better in the marketplace (although “Robbie-Doby-Boogie” did [chart and] sell rather well) … popular taste is a fickle beast! You, the lucky record-buyer of today, can pop the shrink-wrap of this and settle back – or better, pull back the rug – for a good listen to Brownie McGhee jumpin’ the blues. So do it!
* [Older regional blues style were being amplified and their “feel” was changed by the developing amplified bands, “Chicago blues” being just one example.]
** [This album utilizes four full Savoy sessions of four pieces each for a good look at what McGhee was trying to do with a “modern” band backing.]
PETER B. LOWRY (1988) University of Pennsylvania Department of Folklore
Songs and personnel:
“Brown Mule Blues” “My Fault, Baby” “Hard Bed Blues” “Robbie-Doby Boogie”
- McGhee (gtr/vo), Hal Singer (ts) Lannie Scott (pno), Franklin Skeete (bs), Hey wood Jackson (dms). Spring, 1948.
“So Long Baby” “Mabelle” “Poor Boy Blues” “Aunt Jane Blues”
- McGhee (gtr/vo), Melvin Merritt (pno), Curley Russell (bs), Arthur Herbert (dms). 20 October, 1947.
“It Hurts Me Too” “Yellow Moon” “It’s Over” “Contact Me”
- McGhee (gtr/vo), Pritchard Cheesman (ts), Lannie Scott (pno), Franklin Skeete (bs), Art Herbert (dms). 22 March, 1949.
“Confused” “I Was Fooled” “Brownie’s New Worried Life Blues” “Sweet Lover”
– McGhee (gtr/vo), unk (ts), George Rhodes (pno), Gene Ramey (bs), Art Herbert (dms). 20 December, 1948.