In 1941, Okeh Records had a problem. Best selling artist Blind Boy Fuller had just died suddenly from kidney disease. But the record company was desperate to bank on his stardom just a little while longer. So they hired Fuller’s protégé to record as “Blind Boy Fuller 2.” But this second “Blind Boy” wasn’t really blind—and was more than worthy of his own name. He was the multi-talented Brownie McGhee. And he went on to have a lifelong career as an artist, educator and an actor on stage and film. But when Brownie McGhee started, all he really wanted to do was go to school.
“I graduated from high school on June the 4th 1936, I had my diploma in my pocket. And I was going to look for a school to go to. I was very fond of education because I had polio when I was 5,and I figured if I could go to school I could get a job where I could sit down. Study something, be a lawyer or a doctor or something. I could be something. But I didn’t realize it took money. Tuitions got in my way which was confronting me and it drove me into a talent scout. He heard me playing my guitar down in the ghetto in North Carolina. So, Would you like to make records? Yeah I want to make records. I didn’t know what that was. That was the beginning of Brownie McGhee.” – Brownie McGhee
(November 30, 1915 – February 16, 1996)
Walter “Brownie” McGhee was a Piedmont style singer and guitarist, best known for his long-time collaboration with harmonica player Sonny Terry.
Born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1915, he contracted polio at a young age. (His brother Granville actually got his nickname from pushing Brownie around in a cart. He’d grow up to be Stick McGhee, a noted jump blues singer and songwriter.) After a March of the Dimes-funded operation allowed Brownie to walk, he became a travelling musician. That’s when he befriended Blind Boy Fuller and his harmonica player Sonny Terry—effectively jump starting his career. When Fuller died, the record company signed Brownie on as “Blind Boy Fuller No. 2.” That ended quickly, but the partnership Brownie developed with Sonny Terry remained. The two moved to New York and became a near overnight success. By the folk revival of the sixties, they’d become one of the most in-demand acts on the circuit. McGhee also cultivated a pretty successful side career as an actor. He had bit parts in a slew of films, and even appeared on Broadway in the original run of Tennessee William’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He would continue to sustain a life-long career as an artist as well as a blues educator before his death in 1996.