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Sonny Terry picked up the harmonica from his father, who played pre-blues at local functions. Born Saunders Terrell in Greensboro in 1911, he did not become blind until he was a teenager, when he was injured in two separate accidents. As a result, he had to abandon his first choice for a living--farming--and consider music as a profession.
After his father died, Terry moved to Shelby and began playing with a medicine show. During a visit to his brother's in Wadesboro, he met Blind Boy Fuller, whose relatives lived in the same town. Fuller persuaded Terry to move to Durham and introduced him to James B. Long, who immediately brought Terry to New York with Fuller to record. While he played in front of the warehouses in Durham, Terry also met Bull City Red and Reverend Gary Davis.
In 1937, during a recording session in New York, Terry met John Hammond, who wanted Fuller to perform at a "From Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall. However, since Fuller had just been arrested for shooting his wife (which proved to be accidental), he was not available, so Hammond asked the talented harmonica player instead. After Fuller's death, Long paired Terry up with Brownie McGhee. The duo enjoyed playing together so much that they decided to stay in New York and perform together.
In the mid 1950s, both Terry and McGhee played parts in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. They influenced songsters like Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston and Woodie Guthrie. They continued to draw audiences during the folk-blues boom of the 1960s, but during the 70s their friendship began to fade. Terry continued recording and performing up until the early 1980s, but his health eventually forced him to retire until he died in 1986.