Sonny Terry

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Sonny Terry
Terry seated before a microphone with harmonica
Sonny Terry performing live at Nambassa in 1981.
Background information
Birth name Saunders Terrell
Born (1911-10-24)October 24, 1911
Origin North Carolina, United States
Died March 11, 1986(1986-03-11) (aged 74)
Genres Harmonica blues, Piedmont blues,[1] country blues, blues revival, folk-blues, East Coast blues
Occupation(s) musician
Instruments Vocals, harmonica, jaw harp
Years active 1930s—1980s
Labels Atlantic, ABC
Associated acts Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry and His Night Owls

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


Terry was born in Greensboro, Georgia, United States.[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 himself,[2] and in order to earn a living Terry was forced to play music. He began playing in Shelby, North Carolina. After his father died, he began playing in the trio of Piedmont blues-style guitarist Blind Boy Fuller. When Fuller died in 1941, he established a long-standing musical relationship with Brownie McGhee, and the pair recorded numerous songs together. The duo became well known among white audiences, as they joined the growing folk movement of the 1950s and 1960s. This included collaborations with Styve Homnick, Woody Guthrie and Moses Asch, producing Folkways Records' (now Smithsonian/Folkways) classic recordings.

In 1938 Terry was invited to play at Carnegie Hall for the first From Spirituals to Swing concert,[2] and later that year he recorded for the Library of Congress. In 1940 Terry recorded his first commercial sides. Some of his most famous works include "Old Jabo" a song about a man bitten by a snake and "Lost John" in this he demonstrates his amazing 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 that was variously billed as Brownie McGhee and his Jook House Rockers or Sonny Terry and his Buckshot Five.

Terry was also in the 1947 original cast of the Broadway musical comedy, Finian's Rainbow.[4] He also appeared in The Colour Purple directed by Steven Spielberg. With Brownie McGhee, he appeared in the 1979 Steve Martin comedy The Jerk. Terry collaborated with Ry Cooder on "Walkin' Away Blues" as well as a cover of Robert Johnson's "Crossroad Blues" for the 1986 film Crossroads.

Terry died from natural causes at Mineola, New York, in March 1986, three days before Crossroads was released in theaters.[5] He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame that same year.[2]


  • Sonny Terry's Washboard Band (Folkways, 1955)
  • Folk Songs of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee (Roulette, 1958)
  • Blues with Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee (Folkways, 1959)
  • Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry At The Bunkhouse (Smash, 1965)[6]
  • Sonny's Story (Bluesville, 1960)
  • Sonny is King (Bluesville, 1960)
  • Sing & Play (Society, 1966)
  • Sonny & Brownie (A&M Records, 1973)
  • Robbin' The Grave (Blue Labor, 1974)
  • Whoopin' (feat. Johnny Winter & Willie Dixon / Alligator, 1984)
  • Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry Sing (Smithsonian Folkways, 1990)
  • Whoopin' the Blues: The Capitol Recordings, 1947-1950 (Capitol, 1995)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Du Noyer, Paul (2003). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music (1st ed.). Fulham, London: Flame Tree Publishing. p. 181. ISBN 1-904041-96-5. 
  2. ^ a b c d Al Campbell. "Sonny Terry | Biography & History". AllMusic. Retrieved 2015-10-07. 
  3. ^ Terry, Sonny (as told to Kent Cooper). The Harp Styles of Sonny Terry. Oak Publications, 1975, p. 7. There are, however, other sources that refer to his place of birth as Greensboro, NC.
  4. ^ Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books Limited. pp. 62–63. ISBN 1-85868-255-X. 
  5. ^ Doc Rock. "The 1980s". The Dead Rock Stars Club. Retrieved 2015-10-07. 
  6. ^ "At the Bunkhouse - Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved 2015-10-07.