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Despite his tremendous musical talent, Brownie McGhee made his first "appearance" to the music world as "Blind Boy Fuller #2." Born in 1915 in Knoxville, TN, Walter Brown McGhee grew up in a musical family. His first instrument was a marshmallow tin that his uncle transformed into a five-string banjo, and his father soon afterward gave him a toy ukelele. A bout of poliomyelitis as a child left McGhee with a right leg that was shorter than his left, so he turned to music as a way to make a living. He played piano and guitar and performed at the Smoky Mountain Resort during weekends and vacations.
After an operation improved his ability to walk, he chose to travel with his guitar and traveled the borders of Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia. One day while in Burlington, NC, he met George Washington (Bull City Red), who introduced him to James B. Long. Shortly after this time, especially after Fuller's death, Long coined the nickname "Blind Boy Fuller #2," since he saw him as Fuller's replacement to record with Red. His introduction to Sonny Terry, however, proved to be the incident that changed his life.
McGhee and Terry moved to New York to continue their recording and performing, and McGhee opened a School of Blues in Harlem, where he gave guitar lessons. Their records were quite in-demand, and McGhee continued performing both with Terry and with his brother, Granville "Stick" McGhee. In 1949 McGhee appeared on Broadway in Langston Hughes's Simply Heaven and with Terry in Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. McGhee and Terry also played at folk festivals across the nation, including the first American Folk Blues Festival in the early 1960s.
McGhee retired after Terry's death in 1986, but in the early 90s he founded the Blues Is Truth Foundation to continue a blues tradition in the country. Besides his partnership with Terry, he is best known for "Drinking Wine," which he recorded with his brother, Stick. McGhee died in 1996.