Born on October 24, 1911, in Greensboro, Georgia, Saunders Terrell — later known as Sonny Terry — learned to play the harmonica by listening to his father, who played at dances and at home. Terry had a unique style of imitating diverse sounds as moving trains and barnyard animals. He even used his voice to create these special effects. Terry made his debut in the Spirituals to Swing Concert at Carnegie Hall in 1939. He played professionally and recorded with two regular partners — Blind Boy Fuller and Brownie McGhee. The combination of Terry’s innovative harmonica playing and McGhee’s skillful guitar technique created an authentic rural style of music. The two musicians made their first recording in 1941 and later performed in nightclubs, concerts, and at folk and blues music festivals. During 1947-48 Terry appeared in the Broadway musical Finian’s Rainbow, and in 1955-57 performed in Tennessee Williams’ play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Terry and McGhee performed the sound track for the 1972 film, Buck and the Preacher, starring Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. They also appeared in the 1979 film, The Jerk, starring Steve Martin. During the 1980s, Terry performed the sound track in Ry Cooder’s film, Crossroads, and also appeared in and performed some sound track music for Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple. An enduring name in the world of folk music, Terry’s musical legacy is profiled in a publication called The Harp Styles of Sonny Terry. Terry died on March 11, 1986, in Mineola, New York.
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