The secret of selling yourself is to have a product you truly believe in. Brownie McGhee is the perfect embodiment of these words. He is a kind, nurturing, compassionate, generous, noble, dependable, supportive, humorous, intelligent, clever, sometimes hilarious, talented, amazing, entertaining, proud, disciplined, profoundly interesting man. He gave me my deeply appreciated "break," and along with Sonny Terry employed me from 1979 to 1984 as their drummer. The world was my oyster as we travelled from town to town, city to city, country to country, playing what I loved playing the most, folk blues.
I was working for a few weeks in California and I hadn't seen Brownie in almost twelve years -- phone calls a couple of times a year kept us in touch. So when he finally answered the door of his Oakland home on the sunny California day of February 1, 1996, I was shocked to see my good buddy in the shape he was in. He could barely stand up, no less walk. He was frail and weak, nevertheless, he proudly answered the front door. He wasn't wearing his false teeth because they irritated him, and besides, his stomach couldn't digest chewables anyway, only liquids. But his mind was crisp and clear and he began to explain to me that about three months earlier, he was getting ready to go to Australia for a tour and was feeling good and strong--Brownie had always been thick, stout, and healthy looking. He had conquered polio as a five-year-old kid, it left him with a heavy limp, but he had a strong constitution and was rarely ill. So it was some surprise to him to have fainted in the kitchen and woken up in the hospital, saying "Where the hell am I? What happened?" The doctor eventually operated and tried to remove the cancer from his stomach. In the 90 days it had spread through his stomach and up to his throat. "Styve," he said, "I thought I was Superman. I thought I was gonna live forever." We talked about the "road" for an hour or so and then said our "so longs." On my way out, Brownie's daughter Bonnie gave me a few copies of a new CD Brownie and I had recorded live thirteen years ago in Montreal with Sonny and Lightnin' Hopkins and I bumped into a woman in the kitchen who introduced herself as Brownie's biographer, Leslie Ann Knight, and we made a date to meet for an interview. Leslie was sweet, really, and the following week I returned to San Francisco and met with her. She interviewed me for eight-and-a-half hours. It just poured out -- all the stories from 1978-1984 when I hadn't unpacked my suitcase for six years. We worked for nine months a year, never more than two weeks standing still. Thirty-five countries, forty-five states, hundreds of cities, a thousand shows, a million people, tons of airplanes, airports, baggage claims, customs agents, tour managers, roadies, sound men, dozens of songs at a time, laughter, tears, romance, scotch, and more hotel rooms than I could ever remember or wish to forget.
They were my heroes, the crippled Brownie leading the blind Sonny and vice versa. I was, according to Brownie, "the Panama Canal that brought the Atlantic and the Pacific together." (Sonny had a home with his wife Emma in Hollis, Queens, New York, not far from the ocean.) And as you probably know, Sonny and Brownie were together for 45 years. So you could only imagine why in 1968 they stopped talking to each other but kept working together for another fifteen years. (That's another story.) It was this practical arrangement that put me in the position of the "go between," a.k.a. "the Panama Canal." (By the way, although they didn't talk or travel together, please don't misconstrue this as hatred. They loved each other dearly and it was much more of a patient solution to their conflict than a sign of ill will.)
Two days later, February 4, 1996, the day before I returned to New York City, I stopped by to say goodbye to my hero of heros, "The Bluesman," Walter Brown "Blues Is Truth," "Walk On," "Key to the Highway," McGhee -- a man who was always bigger than life to me. I sat on his polished wood floor, so clean and shiny you could sock-ski on it. I listened. "Styve, I'm gonna give you the secret of my success." He introduced this with a tone and style that made me feel that I, Steven Marshall Homnick, was the sole heir to Brownie's most important gift. I grabbed pen and paper and began taking notes. As I listened I realized that he wanted me to know his magic. He wanted me to apply it to my life. He wanted to challenge me to get there -- to appreciate what he had suffered through for over 75 years. "This is magic, gold. This will work," he said with his trademark sandy- smooth , Tennessee drawl. "Takes knowledge, Styve. The key is psychology. A lot of people would have loved to be in Sonny's place. A million people. But, Sonny couldn't play 'Hootin' the Blues.' When he played in A, I played an A that corresponded with his A. Whatever wrong he made, I made it." And Brownie, bless his heart, was always making Sonny look good technically, because although Sonny was a natural born genius as a country blues harmonica player, well, he just couldn't follow the theory: twelve bars. He'd get somewhere in the middle of the twelfth bar, and somehow, Lord knows how, he would almost always turn around, not finish the phrase, and run back to the first bar again. What a task to follow him! Maybe he was so enthusiastic, so consumed in his excitement, that he couldn't wait to get back to the beginning of the song -- he didn't want it to end. You remember Sonny, he was Mr. Energy. So every night Brownie intentionally made the same mistake Sonny made, song after song, show after show, year after year. I learned to make the same mistake too -- or else I wouldn't have been their drummer for so long -- every night we played, I turned what would be chaos into order, Blues style.
New York City, February 14, 1996, Valentine's Day -- Sitting in a cafe feeling more than lucky to have seen Brownie when I did. I began to write this Valentine toast to my mentor. Three days laster a tearful Leslie would call with the news. Brownie managed to gently slip through life's tiny keyhole into the Great Beyond. Crippled lover with a blind partner. Poor, then rich. Southern, then Northern. Sweet chocolate-skinned man in a bitter bleached world of bigotry. Against the river on a sailboat made of dreams. I understood the magic secret to Brownie's success that he so tenderly shared with me twelve days before his most exciting voyage: "Two wrongs make a right, providing you make the wrongs at the same time." Blues is truth.