ATLANTIC 937; MAY 1951



Yeah, it’s filler… a simple unpretentious instrumental B-side, nothing fancy and hardly expected to get plenty of spins on its own.

The hope when issuing one of these kind of songs was that the top side of the single would be good enough to make whatever throwaway cut you paired it with all but irrelevant to the record’s commercial prospects.

But occasionally in those situations you wind up getting a surprisingly revealing look at something that otherwise might never have been explored if every side being recorded came with higher expectations.


Where The Blues Of The Evening Meets The Rock Of The Day
Due to a few very obvious and unfortunate cultural prejudices a lot of the information you’ll find on Stick McGhee these days will refer to him as a bluesman, which of course is patently untrue and says far more about those making such unsubstantiated musical claims than it does about McGhee himself.

Stick McGhee was a pure rock act in every way, from his rhythmic style to his vibrant outlook, not to mention the audience he courted and captured, all of which leaves no doubt as to his place in the music universe. But like everyone from Bo Diddley to Eric Clapton, Big Mama Thornton to Janis Joplin, Keith Richards to Jimi Hendrix, he DID have blues associations that occasionally made themselves apparent.

The difference is when they were MOST apparent it wasn’t Stick who was primarily responsible for them showing up, it was his brother Brownie, who – unlike his younger sibling – was a bluesman first and foremost.

Theirs was an unusual – and largely clandestine – partnership. Brownie McGhee was a successful recording artist in his own right in a style well removed from rock ‘n’ roll, but family ties run deep and when Stick needed a band he could rely on in the studio to give him the sound he conceived in his head he turned to Brownie to pitch in.

The McGhee brothers became the first two guitar rock outfit as Brownie adapted his style to suit his brother’s vision and when needed he’d also sing ragged harmonies or responsorial vocals. He could help with an arrangement and if need be he could bring in others to fill out their sound.

Most of McGhee’s records featured studio pianist Harry Van Walls as the other primary accompanist, sometimes with Frank Culley sitting in on sax, but for a May 1950 session Brownie brought along his own regular musical partner, blues harmonica ace Sonny Terry to add a distinctly different flavor to the mix on two of the four songs.

It fit well enough on the uptempo She’s Gone (Rock Away Blues) which despite Terry’s prominence – including a solo where he’s called out by name – never deviated from the rock framework in which it was written, but the same can’t be said for Blue Barrelhouse the last song cut that day, clearly something just to round out the session which is probably why it took a full year to be released.

That’s what you get when you throw together a rock artist with two bluesman and pair them with a pianist who could play any style under the sun.

Musical Mash Up
The harsh guitar intro Stick supplies is a fuzzed-out example of harder rock, almost punk, sounds decades away from coming to light which are interspersed here with a few piano chords. As such it’s almost a relief when he switches to a more traditional, albeit still intense, lead line that contains a skeletal melody you can at least latch onto.

Van Walls follows that with a rapid fire piano solo that justifies the latter half of the Blue Barrelhouse moniker it has and gives the record a little brighter identity than it appeared destined for at the start.

While they both play very well it’s still an unusual record because it’s definitely not adhering to the three primary avenues for rock instrumentals to date. There’s no easy groove to fall into and no instantly memorably melodic hook to stick in your mind, nor is there a wild no holds barred improvised solo to blow your mind.

It’s a mood piece except the mood is kind of dour all things considered.

But then comes Sonny Terry into the picture giving the song an entirely different feel, one that makes a little more sense considering what preceded it, but a lot less sense when you realize it’s more at home in the blues than in rock ‘n’ roll.

When Terry was blowing on the rock vocal side released back in July, he was riding the rhythm which took some of the blues edge off the instrument, but here he’s leaning heavily into the blues idiom with his intentionally lethargic pace and fluttering tone.

So what we get is downright indescribable in many ways. Terry is playing the blues while McGhee is playing a style of rock that’s still about fifteen or twenty years away from widespread acceptance and Harry Van Walls is trying to hold it together without favoring either one… maybe without even acknowledging either one.

As a result this is one of the weirdest hybrid records that we’ve come across, not that it has parts that don’t make sense on their own, or even in tandem, but rather that they’re just so alien to the dominant features of rock that if ever there WAS a case where some idiot could make the claim that Stick McGhee was a blues act at heart, this might be their best bet.


There Is A Point To All This
Obviously one side of one record with a one-time only guest instrumentalist does not set the career course for the main artist who recorded outside that field for pretty much the entirety of his output otherwise, but we’re still left to try and put this into some context unless we take the – probably smarter – route and excise this from the rolls altogether as we have in the past with pure pop sides of vocalists or the occasional instrumental that skews too far towards jazz.

But obviously we didn’t choose to do that with Blue Barrelhouse for two (hopefully) good reasons.

The first is McGhee’s guitarwork is impressive and deserves to be heard and talked about. Too often at this stage of rock some good guitarists have been forced to keep their instrument under wraps – hello, Jimmy Liggins! – and so any chance to hear some added examples of McGhee’s work is welcome.

The other reason though is to debunk the McGhee/blues nonsense by intentionally showing a record that veers far closer to blues than everything else he ever did, yet does so not because of his own musical parts, but rather because of who he was paired with for this specific song.

In other words it wasn’t McGhee who was headed here on his own, but rather Sonny Terry who invited him to stroll around another neighborhood for a few minutes just to show him around.

Once he saw the sights Stick returned to his own community, to rock ‘n’ roll, and didn’t look back. He had a choice and he made it loud and clear and this was just a momentary diversion that came about simply because they had brought three songs to a four song session and used this to fill it out. Nothing more, nothing less.


(Visit the Artist page of Stick McGhee for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)