Granville “Stick” McGhee, later often credited as “Sticks” McGhee, had just two national hits, and one was an instrumental at that, but when the first of those hits was also just the second ever to make Billboard’s charts for Atlantic Records, the longest lasting and most celebrated of the rock independent labels, and the record that its founder Ahmet Ertegun constantly touted as the one that helped to save the fledging company and set the course for them to become the dominant label of the next decade, then the name Stick McGhee is in no danger of being forgotten even if his larger career outside of that record far more obscure.

Granville McGhee was born in 1918 in Knoxville, Tennessee, the younger brother of Walter “Brownie” McGhee, future blues star of the 1940’s who along with longtime partner Sonny Terry did more to popularize the Piedmont blues style than any others and then in the 1960’s helped spur a widespread renewed interest in folk-blues.

When Brownie was a child he was afflicted with polio which inhibited his ability to walk and so his younger brother used a stick to push him around in a wagon, thereby earning the nickname he’d forever be known by. While serving in the Army in World War II Stick McGhee heard a notorious barracks ditty “Drinkin’ Wine Motherfucker” and upon his discharge signed with the small Harlem Record label where he cut a lyrically modified version in 1947 called “Drinkin’ Wine-Spo-Dee-O-Dee”.

The record sold little and Stick McGhee faded from the scene until 1949 when a New Orleans disc jockey began playing the little heard two year old record on the air and created a huge demand for it around the Crescent City. When an Atlantic Records distributor from the area was talking on the phone to Ertegun who was gently, but desperately, asking why his label’s records weren’t selling and if there was anything that could be done about it the distributor mentioned that if Ertegun, whose Atlantic Records was based in New York, could somehow track down copies of the Harlem Records release by McGhee he’d pay him a bundle for as many as he could ship.

Intrigued by the possibility Ertegun, who’d never heard the record, asked the distributor to send a copy up and once he had it decided to hurriedly cover it outright with another artist in hopes of getting some sales of his own. As the only local bluesman he knew personally was Brownie McGhee he called him to inquire if he was free to cut a session when an incredulous Brownie told him that not only was Stick McGhee his brother, but that Stick was in the room with him at the moment looking for work!

Hence the younger McGhee’s career took off. With Brownie backing him on guitar they re-cut “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” with slightly revised lyrics and a touch more modernity and rush-released it, scoring a #2 hit in the process and setting Atlantic on firm financial footing at last. But Ertegun’s canny instincts only went so far as the bulk of the rest of that session were outdated blues and the one other rock song that might’ve elevated him even higher went unreleased.

McGhee remained with Atlantic however for a number of years and over time focused on exploring those rock styles heard on “Drinkin’ Wine” even further, scoring another #2 hit with an instrumental cover of the country smash “Tennessee Waltz” in 1951. While much of his material from this time was good he had only sporadic regional success with the rest of his output however and he bounced around from label to label over the latter half of the decade never recapturing his initial success and destined to be remembered as an unlikely shooting star whose name would be just a notable footnote in the larger story of a commercial recording giant.

Stick McGhee died from lung cancer in 1961 at the young age of 43, leaving his guitar to his nephew, the son of his more famous older brother who got him his nickname and later helped get him his chance at fleeting glory as an artist.
STICK McGHEE DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Atlantic 873; March, 1949)
A joyful re-working of McGhee’s earlier release of the same song finds this version slowed down to emphasize the lyrics with drums added to give it a more modern sound, but otherwise the charm of the record lays McGhee’s relaxed reading of the sing-along classic. (9)

(Atlantic 898; February, 1950)
A pretty blatant rip-off of McGhee’s hit served its purpose by getting him firmly back on the rock path, crucially highlighting the ominous mood with snarling guitar work plus the addition of horns for color and lyrics that may not be original in theme but are quite effective all the same. (7)

(Atlantic 898; February, 1950)
Though the song is hardly more than a roll call of food dishes to whet the audience’s appetite, the presentation is quite good with a buzzing vibe and tight arrangement that makes this a pretty satisfying meal for those hungry for some easy to digest rock ‘n’ roll. (6)

(Atlantic 909; April, 1950)
An early template for the future hard rock style thanks to the aggressive, almost radioactive, rhythm guitar and a scorching solo, all of which both contradicts Stick’s ode to a stranger’s beauty, yet oddly enhances it as well by exhibiting the fire he feels for her. (9)

(Atlantic 909; April, 1950)
Featuring a tough rolling groove, lots of energy and strong vocals with all of it competently executed there’s a nagging sense they’re going through the motions, as if this was the first rock song made to order rather than divinely inspired. (5)

(Atlantic 912; July, 1950)
Another song of Stick’s “inspired by” his biggest hit from over a year ago which means that it lacks ambition, but it manages to make up for it with McGhee and brother Brownie’s aggressive determination to carry it out as if it was something new and innovative anyway. (7)

(Atlantic 912; July, 1950)
Jarring to hear at first with a much bluesier element injected thanks to Sonny Terry’s harmonica and Brownie McGhee’s more prominent vocal replies, but Stick manages to navigate it well enough that it gets less disconcerting with each listen. (5)

(Atlantic 926; January, 1951)
Nothing more than a regurgitated “Chicken Shack Boogie” substituting McGhee’s feral guitar for the horns, but while it sounds okay in passing the subpar lyrics and lackluster energy they bring to try and distance it from Milburn’s song means it doesn’t get you moving. (5)

(Atlantic 926; January, 1951)
A surprisingly soulful – and commercially successful – instrumental rendering of the hit pop tune that features McGhee’s harsher guitar meshing beautifully with Frank Culley’s melancholy saxophone which warmly caresses the indelible melody. (7)

(London 978; March, 1951)
Moonlighting for a different label, which got him in trouble, not much else has changed as he and his usual band cut an aggressive sounding record full of real world advice with a strong sax solo highlighting the track. (6)

(London 978; March, 1951)
Substituting shock value over humor and featuring a lead vocal that sounds slightly uneasy about it all, this is crude both lyrically and musically, but it’s not offensive because of what is said, but rather it’s offensive that it’s not a good song or performance. (2)

(Atlantic 937; May, 1951)
Though it doesn’t delve far enough into the topic beyond just a few general life lessons, the churning instrumental groove and McGhee’s casually surging vocal pattern make up for the lack of specifics in the lyrics to make the random advice he’s offering go down easy. (6)

(Atlantic 937; May, 1951)
A weird hybrid record that transposes McGhee’s fuzzy hard-rock styled guitar over a barrelhouse piano with a blues harmonica and while it doesn’t really clash it also doesn’t come up with a reason for its existence beyond just filling out a session. (3)

(Atlantic 955; January, 1952)
An interesting experiment that falls a little short as the pace is too slow for the vocal Side One as Stick and brother Brownie’s harmonies don’t mesh well, but the instrumental Side Two improves things with a more varied approach with some good sax work. (5)