Sonny, Brownie And Chris
Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and Chris Barber's Jazz Band
Nixa Black Label NJT 515, recorded 5 February, 1958.
(Not currently available on CD)

Sonny, Brownie And Chris is a fairly rare Chris Barber record. The seven tracks were recorded and released in 1958 on a 10-inch vinyl LP, although a selection of four tracks also appeared on the Chris Barber Jazz Parade, Volume Two 7-inch EP. Unfortunately, they are not currently available on compact disc: a Lake Records CD (LACD87), Echoes of Harlem, included them as a bonus to the main tracks of that original LP, but the CD has been deleted, and Sonny, Brownie And Chris was not included in the fairly recent 6-CD box set that purported to include all the LP records by the Barber Band on the Pye/Nixa label.

Original LP sleeve notes by Paul Oliver:

"In our Skiffle groups we tried to play the folk music of the American Negro. Here are two of the great folk and blues artists who created the music we were attempting," said Chris Barber as he introduced to packed halls throughout Great Britain a smiling, light-skinned Negro who walked with a limp, and his tall, darker, blind companion: Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. Possibly only a small proportion of those responsive audiences were really familiar with the work of his two guests and none could have foreseen the thrilling experience that their music and song was to provide. A score of years of close partnership which has brought them from the dust roads of North Carolina to the bright lights of Broadway has enabled them to achieve an incomparable personal and musical harmony in which the simplicity of their folk origins has been retained whilst their techniques have been perfected. No one who heard them in person will forget Sonny Terry's crying, wailing, singing harmonica, his fluttering fingers and cupping hands, his whoops and hollers as he played and the sudden smiles that lit his otherwise impassive dignified features. Nor will they forget the disarming dexterity of Brownie McGhee's finger picked guitar work at once rhythmic and melodic, that warmth and feeling for his music which was expressed in every movement that he made.

Sanders Terrell -- SonnyTerry -- was born on his father's farm in Greensborough, Georgia on October 24th, 1911. His father played harmonica and Jew's harp and taught him to play these instruments, an education which was to stand him in good stead when two accidents when he was eleven and sixteen years of age rendered him almost completely blind. As a child he used to sing in the Hester Grove Baptist Church -- rocking Gospel Songs like This Little Light of Mine, and these he played on his harmonica when he begged in the streets. He worked in medicine shows, attracting the crowds with his singing and playing and with his "Buck and Wing" dances which he can still be persuaded to perform. Then in 1933 he joined the famous Blind Boy Fulleer -- Fulton Allen -- a folk guitarist and blues singer who worked the Carolinas in the company of George "Oh Red" Washington whose spirited washboard playing is to be heard on many of his records. Fuller had a varied repertoire which included I Want Some Of Your Pie, a blues which Sonny adapted as Custard Pie, his favourite song. The owner of a Durham department store J. B. Long acted as Fuller's manager and secured for the musicians a number of recording dates. News of J. B. Long reached Brownie McGhee via his harmonica player Jordan Webb and the two musicians finally met in Burlington in 1937.

Baptised Walter Brown McGhee, Brownie was born in Knoxville, Tennessee on November 30th, 1915, the son of a farmer and levee worker. An attack of polio at the age of four affected the growth of his right leg and the partial incapacitation caused him to devote much of his time to the piano and the guitar, which he played at the Solomon Temple Baptist Church in Venore, the township where he went to school. Later he sang in the Sanctified Church and in the Golden Voices Gospel Quartette: spirituals like Glory and If I Could Only Hear My Mother Pray Again which latter he was to record as by the Tennessee Gabriel. Leaving school after Ninth Grade he decided whilst still in his early teens to earn his living by playing and singing. In Minstrel Show and Carnival, roadhouse and juke he performed, wandering from Tennessee to Virginia and the Carolinas, adding blues-ballads like Betty and Dupree (Diamond Ring) to his rich store of folk songs and blues. When he met Sonny Terry and Blind Boy Fuller he was a folk singer of repute in spite of his youth.

Fuller died in 1941 but by this time Brownie and Sonny had joined forces. Both moved to New York; Sonny to participate in the December 1938 "Spirituals to Swing" concert, Brownie to visit his mother. Both lived in close association with the great Leadbelly, worked together and in the company of such blues artists as Buddy Moss and Champion Jack Dupree, appeared at concerts and folk song festivals and performed together or separately in stage productions including "Finian's Rainbow" and "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof". The maturity of their partnership is well demonstrated on Key To The Highway on which they play the form of blues that they have introduced to countless thousands of people through the years.

They are not jazz musicians, but it was Chris Barber's Jazz Band that enabled them to bring their music to British audiences and it is fitting that the band should provide the accompaniment on this, their first British recording -- a record which will serve as an excellent introduction for those jazz enthusiasts who have yet to explore the rich field of Negro folk songs.

Music: Key To The Highway || Glory
Photographs of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee from the Barber-Purser Archives
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