One of the best-known and most stylish blues duos of all, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee get a deserved Avid Roots release for four of their albums, recorded between 1958 and 1961. The two men, born in 1911 and 1914 respectively, are skilful musicians and vocalists, with an easily-accessible style and a stricter approach to rhythm and tempo than some solo artists, such as John Lee Hooker or Lightnin’ Hopkins. The result is music that’s immediately engaging, but without the twists and turns that characterise some of the more idiosyncratic blues artists, although Terry’s whoops and cries can surprise.
The various track listings give Terry and/or McGhee songwriting credits for almost all of the songs but like many blues numbers their origins are older and it may be more accurate to credit them as arrangers rather than composers – Southern Train bears a very close resemblance to Junior Parker’s Mystery Train (which has similarities to the Carter Family’s Worried Man Blues), Climbing On Top Of The Hill is the twin brother of Howlin’ Wolf’s Sitting On Top Of The World and bears a striking resemblance to Better Day, which opens Sing. The pair are also credited with writing John Henry, even though the original sleeve notes discuss the 1920s and 30s versions of the song, and skiffle favourite Freight Train (acknowledged as Elizabeth Cotten’s composition).
Sing and Down Home Blues are, in fact, partly trio sets, with drummer Gene Moore keeping time on a selection of tracks. Pianist Dave Lee adds some keyboard magic to three of the songs on Folk Songs Of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, often concentrating on the upper and lower registers of the piano while Terry and McGhee occupy the midrange. The album gets off to a rip-roaring start with I Love You Baby, the trio delivering the song with more energy than many electric trios could muster, then shifts down a gear for the slow tempo shuffle of Corn Bread, Peas And Black Molasses. So the only fully duo album is At Sugar Hill, recorded at the San Francisco nightclub of the same name. It’s a lively and well-recorded set, Terry and McGhee relishing the club atmosphere and giving an impressive performance.
CD1: [Sing] (1) Better Day; Confusion; Dark Road; John Henry; Make A Little Money; Old Jabo; If You Lose Your Money; Guitar Highway; Heart In Sorrow; Preachin’ The Blues; Can’t Help Myself; Best Of Friends; Boogie Baby [Down Home Blues] (2) Let Me Be Your Big Dog; Pawn Shop; You Don’t Know; Betty And Dupree’s Blues; Back To New Orleans; Stranger Here; Fox Hunt; I’m Prison Bound; Louise, Louise; Baby, How Long; Freight Train (78.22)
CD2: [Folk Songs Of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee] (3) I Love You Baby; Corn Bread, Peas and Black Molasses; That’s How I Feel; You’d Better Mind; Treated Wrong; (4) Brownie’s Blues; (3) Southern Train; (4) Just A Dream (On My Mind); Sonny’s Blues; (3) Gone But Not Forgotten; Change The Lock On The Door; Climbing On Top Of The Hill [At Sugar Hill] (5) Hooray, Hooray, This Woman Is Killing Me; Born To Live The Blues; Just About Crazy; Up, Sometimes Down; Baby, I Knocked On Your Door; Keep On Walking; Baby, I Got My Eye On You; I Got A Little Girl; I Feel Alright Now; Worry, Worry, Worry; Sweet Woman Blues (81.37)
(1) Terry (v, hca); McGhee (v, g); Gene Moore (d). New York, January 1960. (2) as (1). Van Gelder Studios, New Jersey, 1960. (3) Terry; McGhee. New York, 1959. (4) as (3) add Dave Lee (p). (5) as (3). San Francisco, December 1961.
Avid Roots AMSC1361