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Sonny Terry

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Sonny Terry
Terry seated before a microphone with harmonica
Terry performing at Nambassa in 1981
Background information
Birth nameSaunders Terrell
Born(1911-10-24)October 24, 1911
Greensboro, Georgia, U.S.
OriginShelby, North Carolina, U.S.
DiedMarch 11, 1986(1986-03-11) (aged 74)
Mineola, New York, U.S.
Years active1930s–1980s

Saunders Terrell (October 24, 1911 – March 11, 1986),[1] known as Sonny Terry, was an American Piedmont blues and folk musician,[2] who was known for his energetic blues harmonica style, which frequently included vocal whoops and hollers and occasionally imitations of trains and fox hunts.


Terry was born in Greensboro, Georgia.[3] His father, a farmer, taught him to play basic blues harp as a youth. He sustained injuries to his eyes and went blind by the time he was 16, which prevented him from doing farm work,[1] and was forced to play music in order to earn a living.[4] Terry played "Camptown Races" to the plow horses which improved the efficiency of farming in the area. He began playing blues in Shelby, North Carolina. After his father died, he began playing with Piedmont blues–style guitarist Blind Boy Fuller.[4] When Fuller died in 1941, Terry established a long-standing musical relationship with Brownie McGhee, and they recorded numerous songs together. The duo became well known among white audiences during the folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s,[4] including for collaborations with Styve Homnick, Woody Guthrie and Moses Asch, producing classic recordings for Folkways Records (now Smithsonian/Folkways).[4]

In 1938, Terry was invited to play at Carnegie Hall for the first From Spirituals to Swing concert,[1] and later that year he recorded for the Library of Congress. He recorded his first commercial sides in 1940. Among his most famous works are "Old Jabo", a song about a man bitten by a snake, and "Lost John", which demonstrates Terry's precisely honed breath control.

Despite their fame as "pure" folk artists, in the 1940s Terry and McGhee fronted a jump blues combo with honking saxophone and rolling piano, which was variously billed as "Brownie McGhee and his Jook House Rockers" or "Sonny Terry and his Buckshot Five".

Terry was in the 1947 original cast of the Broadway musical comedy Finian's Rainbow.[5] With McGhee, he appeared in the 1979 Steve Martin comedy The Jerk. Terry also appeared in the 1985 film The Color Purple, directed by Steven Spielberg. Terry collaborated with Ry Cooder on "Walkin' Away Blues", and also performed a cover of Robert Johnson's "Crossroad Blues" for the 1986 film Crossroads.

Terry and McGhee were both recipients of a 1982 National Heritage Fellowship awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts, which is the United States government's highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.[6] That year's fellowships were the first bestowed by the NEA.

Terry died of natural causes in Mineola, New York, in March 1986, three days before Crossroads was released in theaters.[7] He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in the same year.[1]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Campbell, Al. "Sonny Terry: Biography". AllMusic.com. Retrieved October 7, 2015.
  2. ^ Du Noyer, Paul (2003). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music. Fulham, London: Flame Tree Publishing. p. 181. ISBN 1-904041-96-5.
  3. ^ Terry, Sonny (as told to Kent Cooper) (1975). The Harp Styles of Sonny Terry. Oak Publications. p. 7. Other sources give his place of birth as Greensboro, North Carolina.
  4. ^ a b c d Colin Larkin, ed. (1995). The Guinness Who's Who of Blues (Second ed.). Guinness Publishing. pp. 343–344. ISBN 0-85112-673-1.
  5. ^ Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books. pp. 62–63. ISBN 1-85868-255-X.
  6. ^ "NEA National Heritage Fellowships 1982". Arts.gov. National Endowment for the Arts. Archived from the original on September 29, 2020. Retrieved November 22, 2020.
  7. ^ Doc Rock. "The 1980s". TheDeadRockStarsClub.com. Retrieved October 7, 2015.
  8. ^ "Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, At the Bunkhouse: Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic.com. Retrieved October 7, 2015.