Sonny Terry

by Anna Huntley, UNC Asheville Student

 


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Thanks to George Frayne for permission to use the above 
artwork. (See more of his work.)

Full name: Saunders Terrell

Other names: Sonny Terry

Born: October 24, 1911, Greensboro, NC
Died: March 12, 1986 

Instrument: Harmonica/jaw harp and vocals 

Biographical Sketch

Sonny Terry was born Saunders Terrell in Greensboro, North Carolina, on October 24, 1911. He lost sight in one eye in an accident when he was five years old and lost the other in another accident at the age of eighteen, which he knew would severely affect his choices for employment. It was at this time that he decided to become a blues singer. His father played the harmonica and taught Sonny as he was growing up. He traveled back and forth from his home to the Durham area, an area known for its rich history in blues culture, and began performing on street corners. He developed a style of playing - making barnyard noises and train whistles on his harmonica - that was uniquely his own. He met the famous guitarist Blind Boy Fuller during this time and eventually moved to Durham permanently. In 1937 the two were offered a recording opportunity in New York City, which they took.

Not too long after that, Terry met his next partner, Brownie McGhee, who would become his guitarist for the remainder of his career. After Blind Boy Fuller's death, Terry and McGhee moved to New York City for good. It was here where the two were never found wanting for work. Terry was in great demand and played for major folk musicians, such as, Leadbelly, Woodie Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. Terry also began an acting career with the Broadway show, Finian's Rainbow. Terry and McGhee had a prolific recording career and often traveled out of New York for shows. They both starred in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and began traveling around the world for different festivals and shows. During his travels, Terry began to write his instructional book, entitled The Harp Styles of Sonny Terry

The constant association that touring demanded eventually proved to be too much for Terry and McGhee, and they stopped playing together. During the latter part of his career, Terry was rediscovered by a younger blues generation and attempted a comeback album, similar to Muddy Water's Hard Again. He agreed to few live appearances, but had quit recording altogether by the 1980s.

Books

Bastin, Bruce. Crying for the Carolines. London: Studio Vista, 1971.

Cooper, Kent, and Palmer, Fred, eds. The Harp Styles of Sonny Terry. New York: Oak, 1975. 125 pp. 

Harris, Sheldon. Blues Who's Who. 1979. pp. 502-505. 

Neff, Robert, and Connor, Anthony. Blues. London: Latimer New Directions, 1976. 

Smith, Chris. That's the Stuff: the recordings of Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, Stick McGhee, and J.C. Burris. Bixter: Housay Press, 1999.

Articles

Bendon, Brin. "Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee." Footnote (England) 1 (1969): 8-10. 

Elmes, Barry. "Living Blues Interview: Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee". Living Blues 13 (Summer 1973): 14-18. 

"Obituaries". Living Blues 70 (1986): 45. 

"Sonny Terry - Blues Magic on the Harmonica." Sing Out! (February 1954): 4. 

"Sony Terry Disc." Sing Out! (February 1954): 6.

Recordings on CD

McGhee, Brownie, Sonny Terry. Blues Masters. [S.1.]: Storyville, p1991.

McGhee, Brownie. Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry Sing. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Folkways; Cambridge, Mass.: Distributed by Rounder Records, p1990.

Terry, Sonny. Backwater Blues. Fantasy FCD-24750-2.

Terry, Sonny. Folkways Years, 1944-1963. Smithsonian Folkways 40033. 

Terry, Sonny. Sonny Terry: Complete Recorded Works, 1938-1945. DOCD 5230

Videos and DVDs 

Davis, Gary; Terry, Sonny. Rev. Gary Davis and Sonny Terry Masters of the Country Blues. Newton, NJ; Yazoo Video, Distribution of Shanachie Records Corp., 1991. 

Joans, Ted; White, Bukka; Lewis, Furry; Sykes, Roosevelt; McGhee, Brownie; Terry, Sonny; Williams, Robert Pete; King, B.B.; Dixon, Willie; Wells, Junior; Guy, Buddy; Crudup, Arthur; Lipscomb, Mance. Out of the Blacks Into the Blues. Newton, NJ; Yazoo Video, 1992. 

Terry, Sonny. Whoopin' the Blues. Cambridge MA; Vestapol; Distributed by Rounder Records, 1997. 

Terry, Sonny; McGhee, Brownie. Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Red River Blues. Cambridge, MA; Rounder Records, 1997. 

Web Sites

Alligator. Accessed 2 Dec. 2003 <http://www.alligator.com/artists/bio.cfm?artistid=060>

The Blues Harp Page. Accessed 2 Dec. 2003 <http://www.bluesharp.ca/legends/sonny.html>

Hohner. Accessed 2 Dec. 2003 <http://www.hohnerusa.com/artiststerry.shtml>



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Last updated 18 December 2003.