The following is reprinted with permission of
RETRO: The Magazine of 20th Century Popular Culture

Remembering Brownie

by Nancy Eaton

Legendary blues great Brownie McGhee died peacefully Friday, February 16, 1996, near his home in Oakland, California. He was 80 years old. I was fortunate enough to have spent a little time with Brownie and his family in 1995, and wrote the following after a visit with him this past October.

The fog had just started to burn off at 2 pm, but it wasn't cold. Everything seemed still and empty on the freeway, almost as if it were a holiday instead of just a Sunday. I drove behind Leslie and Mike through the streets of inner city Oakland. We turned down 43rd street and pulled into the driveway, parking behind the car with the familiar "Walk On" license plate and "I'm not a dirty old man, I'm a sexy senior citizen!" bumper sticker.

Up the back stairs, we knocked on the door and waited for what seemed to be a very long time. Ain't nobody here but us chickens, Leslie called. I clucked. In the times I'd been there before, he'd opened the door in a minute chatting, welcome, welcome, come on in. Or we'd hear him in his office, singing and playing the piano before he'd bring us inside. This time when the door opened, it was different. And, despite all his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, on this Sunday afternoon, as on most of the days I'd visited, Brownie McGhee was alone.

At first, I thought we might have roused him from a nap, but then I realized that this was what he had become, how he is. In the three months since I'd seen him last, he had lost at least sixty pounds. He was wearing blue and white striped overalls and his ever-present Guyabera shirt. His right foot was in its usual unzipped prosthetic boot, but his left foot was wrapped in an ace bandage, and I could see that his ankle was badly swollen.

His Martin guitar, which used to be in an open case on the dining room table for accessibility, was now set aside in a closed case on the divan. The house was stifling hot; he'd even turned on the oven to provide extra heat to the back of the house. It had to be 85 degrees inside at least. Brownie sat on a side chair in the dining room while Leslie, Mike and I sat around the dining room table. It was obvious he wasn't at all well. He took a long time to get wound up and to begin his usual storytelling so that Leslie could take down his words for his memoirs.

On this particular day, he talked about Sonny Terry. The reasons they broke up. During the early '70s, popular musical tastes changed, Brownie said. He had been with Sonny for forty years, always being the leader behind the scenes, quietly, giving Sonny the spotlight. "Two wrongs make a right if both wrongs are done at the same time" Brownie said of Sonny. "If he played seven bar blues, I played seven bar. Five bar, two bar, nine bar, whatever he did I followed. Two wrongs made a right. People thought it was rehearsed."

I looked around the dining room. Souvenir plates from all fifty states plus much of Canada created a border that rimmed the ceiling. Glancing at Utah and then at Vermont and Virginia, I noted that the states were in alphabetical order and that all of them were there, plus one of Martin Luther King, Jr. All of these were surrounded by dozens of pictures of his smiling progeny, part of his legacy. But again, except for us, he was alone on this particular Sunday afternoon.

In the early '70's, things changed, he said. He and Sonny needed to adapt to the times. They'd been together forty years, he felt they could be together forty more if they just would adapt; hire some musicians to back them, and start doing some other artists' songs in addition to the folk and country blues chestnuts they'd written and played all these years. But Sonny was intractable. No new musicians, no new music. So, after recording their last album, "Sonny and Brownie," they severed the partnership that had endured forty years, due to creative differences. This day, Brownie expressed great regret that they didn't have those additional years together. They never spoke again; Sonny passed away in 1986.

With Leslie on the phone and Mike out of the room, Brownie said it had been a while since he'd seen me. I thought it had been at his Memorial Day picnic, but his memory was better than mine; he said no, it was at the Monterey Blues Festival in late June. That day, I was running late and trying desperately to find a parking place at the fairgrounds (looking for parking is how I spend a great deal of my time in California.) Stuck in a traffic jam, cursing myself for not leaving earlier, I could hear his booming voice belting out Big Bill Broonzy's "Just a Dream," from the main stage. He was so happy that day, just ecstatic on the tail-end of a week which had also included headlining the Chicago Blues Festival. In both venues, the crowd loved him and gave him standing ovations. Backstage after Monterey, while Robert Lockwood, Jr. was playing upstairs on the main stage, we ate hot chicken wings and drank beer while he and Elmer Lee Thomas and the band posed for photographs and laughed in triumphant post-performance giddiness.

Now he was very different. Gaunt. His ears stood out from his head. But despite his advanced illness, he looked youthful, almost boyish in his overalls and neatly trimmed gray hair and beard. Though he's nearly blind, there were times when he'd make a point, fix his gaze directly, and an intensity would burst through like a laser beam.

Mike played Brownie a song he'd downloaded from the Internet. Brownie said, "Oh that was in Scotland. 'Walk On.'" He retold a story we'd heard a couple times already: In the late 1950's, he and Sonny were playing in Glasgow. Their set was over, but the audience wouldn't let them leave the stage. They wanted more, but there was no more. Brownie leaned the blind Sonny up against his shoulder so that they could walk off together, and he started improvising, "I don't know where I'm going, but I sure know where I've been...walk on." They walked off across the long stage, downstairs to the basement through a big room with a long antique table. Still singing, they were Pied Pipers to the crowd that followed them, until the huge basement couldn't hold another person. He never forgot the love he felt that day. Audience love is what nurtured him, sustained him. He needed to be needed, in exactly that way.

I wasn't supposed to let on that I knew about his illness, and he never actually mentioned cancer to me. He told me that, when he went in to get laser treatment on his eyes this past summer, the doctor told him the surgery wasn't advisable. That's when, he said, they found problems with his stomach. And then he had a blackout spell, went in the hospital, and they found he had something wrong in his blood. He was taking medication and was restricted to a liquid diet. He could have any kind of soup he wanted, as much as he wanted, any time he wanted. A friend told him about, "what do you call it...Met...MetRX," and he was drinking that too; he said it tasted just fine. Doctor said he needed potassium, so I suggested bananas, and he laughed, "Oh, I have loads of 'em in the kitchen. I got bananas, I got milk, I got ice cream, I got everything soft and one of those [whirling fingers] blender things. And soup: pepper pot, chicken noodle, chicken gumbo, chicken rice, beef noodle. I got a case of 'em." He told me he'd gained six pounds, and I said that was good, but he then added, patting his stomach, that it was just fluid, and that he had no real appetite anymore.

From time to time, he'd reach his hands inside his overall bib to rub his sides and stomach. He'd move his hands up around his neck and to the side of his head. He had trouble speaking at some moments; his voice was sometimes strained and hoarse; different. His lower dental plate would slip a bit when he spoke.

I had brought my Taylor with me, which he loved, hoping it might cheer him to play it. When I asked him if he wanted to, he said no, he didn't feel inclined. That since he got sick...he trailed off then reached in his pocket where he still carried his finger picks. Slowly, with great difficulty, he untangled them, placed them on his fingertips, and shook his head sadly. There have been some changes, he said quietly, how differently they fit just a few weeks before. His strength wasn't the same, he added, and he couldn't grip the neck the way he used to. And though he didn't tell me, I realized then that he couldn't play without needing to sing. And now he couldn't sing; the cancer had spread to his larynx and vocal cords.

This is a proud man, one who would never complain, one who wasn't dwelling on these disabilities for sympathy. It was his way of explaining why he couldn't give back anymore the way in which he loved to -- by entertaining.

And, for that reason, he told us he had decided he wasn't going to appear at the Blues Allstars benefit that night at Yoshi's. He was embarrased by his weakness, his failing health. He declared, frowning, "I don't want no sympathy, if I gotta go to the bathroom or something, I don't want people sayin' 'oh, can I help you walk?' I can't stand sympathy. By the time the concert started I'd have to say, 'OK, gotta go!' And wave and smile and then just go? I can't do that. So no, I don't plan to go over there and deal with that."

But I also suspected that he didn't go because he felt his appearance might detract attention from Muddy Waters' drummer Francis Clay, for whom the benefit was being held. Brownie never wanted to take the spotlight away from anyone he felt needed or wanted it more than he did. Though he did love to declare, with a smile, that he was the thirteenth wonder of the world.

As we were packing up, he said, so Nancy, when are you getting married? And I said, well Brownie, when do you want to? Well, this tickled him, he threw his hands up and laughed and tried to explain what he'd meant. I had gotten him with a good one. He said he was remembering what I'd told him back in May, that my former husband hadn't been interested in my guitar playing, so he was wondering when I would be getting married again. How upset this had made him back in May. How sad and unthinkable, he said, to be married to someone who couldn't bear their loved one's music. I agree, Brownie, I agree.

At four o'clock, we said goodbye, leaving him sitting in his dining room at his request, and went over to Yoshi's for the benefit. The music was great, Lowell Fulson, Lady Bianca, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Sista Monica and Boz Scaggs, but it was hard not to keep thinking of Brownie. Every lucid and pain-free day after this one would be a gift. I wracked my brain thinking if there was something special we could do for him and came up empty; they'd done it all last year when they had a birthday party for him and every blues artist of note from the Bay Area sang his songs...Barbara Dane, Alvin Hart, Elmer Lee Thomas, everyone... That was greatest gift he could ever have been given. When with him earlier today, I decided that one little white girl singing his songs badly would probably depress rather than cheer him, so I played to my strengths with a few well-placed wisecracks. And then the guilt: was I doing this for him, or for me?

And the lessons, oh the lessons. You've changed lives: Believe in your heart. See the good in others. Believe in yourself. Do what you feel and be true to yourself. Believe in your children and help them know they can do anything, be anything. Don't allow so-called handicaps to get in the way of your dreams. Blues is truth. If you don't want to pat your foot to it, it ain't right.

And the timing of it all, thinking about all the racial issues that have been stirred up lately. About how it matters, but it doesn't matter, but then it does. It doesn't matter where these truths are concerned, but then it does. It is all so perplexing before it again becomes clear.

Thank you, Brownie, for making it clear. Walk on.

In memory of Brownie, contributions
can be sent to The Blues Is Truth Foundation.

Nancy Eaton lives in San Francisco, California, and is the brains behind RETRO: The Magazine of 20th Century Popular Culture -- devoted to "anything that was ever cool."

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