Only a handful of blues harmonicists had as much of a lasting influence on the genre as did Sonny Terry. Born Saunders Terrell in Greensboro, Georgia on October 24, 1911, Sonny’s father was a musician and farmer. His father played harmonica, but not the blues; he played popular rags and reels at fish fries and local parties and taught young Sonny to play.
Youtube video: Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee (with Willie Dixon on bass)
An accident at the age of five left him blind in one eye, another when he was eighteen left him legally blind. His blindness left him little hope for making a living as a farmer. He began playing his harmonica on the streets and juke joints of nearby Shelby, North Carolina and eventually signed on with a traveling medicine show. After his father died in an accident he moved in with a brother in Wadesboro, southeast of Charlotte. It was in Wadesboro that he met Blind Boy Fuller. Fuller convinced him to move to Durham where there was good money to be made playing the blues. Fuller, Terry, and washboard player George Washington (better known as Bull City Red) could make enough money for a weeks worth of groceries for all three in just one day playing the tobacco warehouses of Durham.
In 1937 Terry accompanied Fuller to New York for a recording session. Sonny Terry appeared on all of Blind Boy Fuller’s recordings from that time until Fuller’s death in 1940. At a concert in Washington, D.C. in 1939, Sonny Terry met Brownie McGhee, a Piedmont-style guitarist from Knoxville, Tennessee who had been struck with polio as a child. By 1950 the duo was part of the New York folk music scene with Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. By the later part of the 1950s, just as their popularity started to wane, the folk revival of the 1960s brought them back to stardom and the two toured the world on their new-found fame. By the 1980s, Terry’s health kept him from touring, although he did make one more trip to the studio to record the LP Whoopin' (Alligator AL 4734) with Johnny Winter and Willie Dixon. Sonny Terry died March 11, 1986 after more than fifty years of energetic, inspiring music.