Brownie McGhee was born in Tennessee (Knoxville) and grew up in Kingsport, also in Tennessee. When a child he developed polio, which incapacitated his leg. His brother Granville “Sticks” or “Stick” McGhee was nicknamed for pushing young Brownie everywhere in a cart. His Dad, George McGhee, was a factory worker known in the region around University Avenue for entertaining with his guitar. No doubt McGhee got his first acoustic guitar lessons this way. Brownie’s uncle made him a guitar from an old tin box and a piece of board. Brownie spent much of his younger years lost in music, performing with local harmony group called the Golden Voices Gospel Quartet and teaching himself to play guitar.
When he was 22, McGhee decided to become a wandering musician, as a member of the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and befriending Blind Boy Fuller, whose prowess on blues guitar influenced him greatly. It seems that Fuller additionally gave Brownie guitar lessons at about that time. After Fuller’s death around 1941, J. B. Long of Columbia Records had McGhee borrowed his mentor’s name, branding him “Blind Boy Fuller No. 2.” By that time, McGhee was making records for Okeh Records, a subsidiary of Columbia Records based in Chicago, but the mostl success arrived after he relocated to NY City in 1942, when he teamed up with Sonny Terry, who was known to him since 1939 when Sonny was played harmonica for BB Fuller. The relationship was an immediate success. In addition to making records, they toured together until around 1980. As a duo, they did most of their work from 1958 to 1980, dedicating 11 months of each year touring, and making dozens of albums.
Despite their later fame as popular folk artists playing for white people, in the 1940s they also tried to become successful black recording performers, creating a traditional blues group with blaring saxophone and boogie piano, sometimes naming themselves “Brownie McGhee and his Jook House Rockers” or “Sonny Terry and his Buckshot Five,” often with Champion Jack Dupree and Big Chief Ellis.
During the blues revival in the 1960s, Terry and McGhee were very well known on the music and concert festival circuits, now and again bringing new songs but mostly remaining faithful to the blues roots and their admirers.
Happy Traum, a celebrated guitar student of Brownie’s, created a blues guitar instruction guide and songbook using his style. Using a tape recorder, Happy had McGhee give instruction and, between lessons, discuss his life and the blues. Guitar Styles of Brownie McGhee was published in New York in the early 70s. The autobiographical section features McGhee chatting about his childhood, how he started to play blues music, and a short history of the early blues period.
McGhee’s final public appearance was at the 1995 Chicago Blues Festival. He died from cancer of the stomach in 1996 in Oakland, CA at the age of 80.