Guy Davis & Fabrizio Poggi – Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train
M.C. Records MC-0081
12 songs – 46 minutes
Guy Davis and Fabrizio Poggi team up to deliver an aural love letter to two of their personal favorites, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee on this delightful collection album, dramatically reviving the memory of two of the greatest acoustic bluesmen and longest enduring musical partners the world has ever known.
A master craftsman in the Piedmont style of blues harmonica, Terry was born in Georgia, grew up in the vicinity of Raleigh, N.C., and went blind as a teenager. He rose to prominence in 1938 when he was invited by John Hammond to participate in the legendary From Spirituals To Swing concert at Carnegie Hall, the two-day event that introduced the blues – along with Big Joe Turner, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jimmy Rushing, Big Bill Broonzy and others – to white society for the first time. He was a Broadway star, too, appearing in 1947 in the long-running play, Finnian’s Rainbow.
A native of Knoxville, Tenn., and stricken with polio at age four, McGhee was a powerful vocalist who rose to prominence with a picking style that was distinctly different than his contemporaries. He worked alongside his hero, Blind Boy Fuller, in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. He and Terry met in 1939 and started working together after Fuller’s death two years later. They were an essential part of the folk revival of the ‘60s and worked together until 1975 – even though they hadn’t spoken to one another in decades over a dispute, the origin of which neither could remember.
Both Poggi — pronounced with a soft “g”, who produced Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train, in Milan, Italy, where he fronts the band Chicken Mambo, is a one of the world’s foremost practitioners of the Piedmont harp style, a technique in which Davis, an award-winning singer, guitarist, actor and storyteller, is also gifted. The pair have recorded frequently together and toured both sides of the Atlantic, delighting audiences wherever they appear. And Guy also revived Sonny’s Finnian role in three different runs on the New York stage.
“Brownie and Sonny were two musicians whose work will never surpassed, let alone improved on,” says Guy.
While that might be true, this writer is old enough to have experienced those giants on multiple occasions in my youth and, more recently, been blessed with the good fortune of catching Davis and Poggi in concert, too. Even though they deliver much of the same material as their predecessors, they achieve a level of intimacy that Terry and McGhee never approached – possibly because of personal differences.
And that warmth flows like a torrent from the digital imprint on this CD.
The opener, “Sonny And Brownie’s Last Train,” is the only new tune on the disc. Suggested in an idea conceived by Fabrizio, it was written spontaneously by Guy at the mike in the recording studio and depicts the two legends – Sonny died in ’86 and Brownie a decade later – pulling out of the station and heading to their Great Reward. It’s a warm and fuzzy introduction to what’s to follow with Davis handling vocal and guitar duties as he does throughout and both he and Poggi on harmonica.
Beginning with “Louise, Louise,” written by Broonzy and Robert Pete Williams, and Terry’s “Hooray, Hooray These Women Is Killing Me,” all of the material is either from the Sonny-and-Brownie songbook or tunes they played frequently throughout their lifetimes, and delivered in pretty much as originally conceived. The big differences here are Guy and Fabrizio’s feelings both for their forebears and their music and for each other, something that elevates the songs to another level altogether, and the crystal-clear, outstanding modern recording.
The traditional “Shortnin’ Bread” features Davis on guitar and harp with Poggi providing rhythm on a kick drum before takes of Big Joe Williams’ “Baby Please Don’t Go Back To New Orleans” and “Take This Hammer,” written by Leadbelly, who frequently worked with Sonny and Brownie in concert. St. Louis Jimmy Oden’s “Goin’ Down Slow” and Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train” are up next before versions of Brownie’s “Evil Hearted Me” and Josh White’s “Step It Up And Go.” The Terry-McGhee original, “Walk On,” follows before the Leadbelly standard, “Midnight Special,” brings the set to a close.
Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train is as close as anyone living in the 21st Century will get to enjoying Terry and McGhee in concert. If you love the old masters like I do – or simply are just curious about the way they truly sounded in concert – pick this one up today. It’s Sonny and Brownie live – and taken to another level.