Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee endured as a duo for over four decades, although they often worked on their own or even backed each other up on the other's solo projects. The duo had a volatile relationship and were not beyond arguing with each other while on stage performing; however this was a rarity. Although they were blues performers, they remained an acoustic act, and therefore were more closely embraced by the folk music community than the hard-core blues aficionados.
Born Saunders Terrell, Sonny Terry is largely credited with incorporating the mean "growl" with a soaring harmonica run. He was among the last of the legendary "blind" bluesmen, although he didn't lose his sight until the age of 18. He was the son of a popular harmonica player and when his blindness set in, the options for him to make a viable living were severely limited. His father had taught him to play, but whereas his father was known mostly for Irish jigs and reels, Terry (he had changed his name when he became a professional musician) had already developed a bent toward the Delta blues.
Initially, Terry hooked up with blues guitarist Blind Boy Fuller, whom he began backing on record and in concerts. At around the same time he met and started jamming with Brownie McGhee. He remained professionally linked to Fuller until the blind guitarist's death in 1941. He received considerable recognition in 1938 when he performed with the likes of Bessie Smith and Leadbelly at the Spirituals to Swing concert held at Carnegie Hall by famed A&R exec John Hammond.
By 1940, he was working with McGhee, and they officially became a duo in 1942. They worked on and off together through most of the 1940s, but their tours were limited between 1946 and 1948, when Terry took a role in the Broadway play, Finian's Rainbow. In the late 1940s they fronted a jump blues combo, but it was the folk boom in the 1950s (and events such as Newport Folk Festivals in the early 1960s), that fully established the team as a blues duo. They toured and recorded extensively in the 1950s, working alongside folk legends such as Woody Guthrie, Odetta, Ledbelly, and others.
Sonny Terry died in 1986, at the age of 75; Brownie McGhee appeared in the film Angel Heart and continued to work after Terry's death. He passed away at age 80 in 1996 from stomach cancer.