No tags :(

Share it






The way in which musical genres take shape, emerging from a confluence of disparate sources, gelling into something new and different, then gradually adding new components and subtracting others until it settles into its skin, is a remarkable phenomenon.

In musical subgenres this is often easier to see, simply because there are so many that spring up and most are fairly short-lived, so the process is much more condensed, but since they still belong to the larger major genre there’s not quite the same need for rigid identifying markers.

But the major genres are a little more particular about just what sounds they’re willing to accept and while that can change over time it’s usually a much longer process and so any time you come across one of the earliest examples of appropriating a key trait from an outside genre you’re bound to meet with some confusion if not outright resistance.


I Start To Write A Letter
By this point in our journey we probably don’t need to explain again why rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t closely connected to the blues other than to remind any lingering skeptics about the vast differences in cultural outlook and the musical makeup of the two genres.

It’s that last point we’ll be focusing on here, the fact that rock music was born in the studio with largely jazz-reared musicians dumbing down their playing to suit the more simple construct of rock songs with their often brash lyrical and vocal attitudes.

In other words, blues musicians by in large were not asked to take part in this process. If they had been then maybe things would’ve turned out different but as it was jazz was seeing a drastic decrease in opportunities after the war and when rock ‘n’ roll emerged in the late 1940’s they needed musicians who could come up with head arrangements, albeit in a cruder fashion than they were used to, and thus you saw a migration of jazz instrumentalists into rock session work, sometimes with great misgiving, but whose presence had a profound effect on the evolving style.

Which is what made Stick McGhee’s rock records somewhat unusual. The brother of a genuine blues star, he had his older sibling Brownie join him in the studio playing a second guitar and contributing ragged answer vocals to Stick’s smoother leads, giving Stick’s records a much different feel than the more polished output of most of his peers.

Though Brownie was definitely a key component however, he was still a secondary figure in the arrangement, and he was the one conforming to Stick’s rock instincts for the most part rather than forcing his own blues DNA into the mix.

But not so with She’s Gone, which has a somewhat uneasy marriage between the rock ‘n’ roll that Stick McGhee was pledged to and the blues which Brownie made his living on… and with Brownie bringing in reinforcements the tenuous balance they had existed on prior to now was at risk of being upended.


Boys, It Was My Fault
Brownie McGhee had a long partnership with Sonny Terry, a harmonica whiz who had gone blind in his youth and had been working with Blind Boy Fuller before Fuller’s death in 1941. A year later he and McGhee became partners and over the next twenty years probably recorded more sides than any blues act outside of Lightnin’ Hopkins.

Based in New York their style was more folk-blues than Delta blues or urban blues, something which benefited them greatly in the 1960’s when there was a huge folk-blues boom on college campuses. In the interim they had gotten into acting – appearing on Broadway, and Brownie even opened up a music school in New York… in addition to helping out his younger brother Stick.

So it’s hardly surprising that along the way Sonny Terry came on board to join in as well and its his presence on She’s Gone that makes this record a rather precarious balancing act… not integrated enough to be called a hybrid between the two genres, yet not conflicting enough to send it down in flames either.

Of course kicking off with Van Wall’s infectious piano you have no idea that anything is will seem out of place before long. It sounds very urbane in fact, too jittery to be mistaken for classy and upscale, but it definitely has a modern tinge to it which bodes well for the record.

When Stick starts singing the guitar is lurking in the background but hardly infringing upon the vocals or piano. Having been enthralled but the dueling McGhee guitars in recent efforts this may be something of a let down, but you sense by its detached presence that it will soon be asserting itself more brazenly.

Instead what we get is Terry whooping it up on harmonica, which at first pass sounds alarming. In the future of course the harmonica would find itself incorporated into rock, although not always as seamlessly as it’d like. The truth is for an instrument that is quite easy to pick up and learn to play competently without any formal lessons, there’s few records where it’s been judiciously applied and subtly integrated into the arrangement. The sound of it is so distinctive that it has trouble blending in and thus is often best used for quick repetitive riffs rather than prolonged stays in the forefront.

Terry’s first moment in the spotlight is fine, doing exactly what is called for giving us a spiraling answer riff to the vocal stanza, but when he gets called out by Stick to solo it draws so much attention – as solos are designed to do – that we notice the alien sonic texture even more than we should.

It becomes conspicuous in other words… well played for sure, and upon repeated listens it meshes better than it seems the first time you hear it, but since the success of singles during the jukebox era were largely made on an immediate visceral reaction, its presence can’t help but make it sound like an intruder.

When You Make A Mistake That You’ll Regret
But to lay all of the “blame” at Sonny Terry’s feet wouldn’t be fair, because it’s his running mate Brownie who sounds equally out of step here. For one thing he’s given too much to do vocally, chiming in with unnecessary replies to Stick’s lead which doesn’t work well at all. Rather than a natural call and response technique, this takes on the appearance of horning in.

Because his role is bigger than would be advisable, the Atlantic producers have either placed him closer to the mic to pick up his lines, or have adjusted the mix to have his presence more in your face, compounding the problem because his weary strained tone reflects how out of place he is culturally. Frankly he sounds old, like a bluesman worn down by a lifetime of disappointments compared to Stick who comes across like a rocker uplifted by endless possibilities that are now appearing on the horizon.

The really telling thing about She’s Gone however is how the record really exemplifies the rift between the two competing elements within the song itself, as well as showing the gaping chasm that exists between blues and rock in the larger sense.

The story is more aligned with blues with its downhearted perspective as the lyrics bemoan how his girl left him even as it finds him accepting responsibility for her leaving. But he tilts that perspective on its axis in the very next breath as as saying how much it hurts him that she’s gone he declares he’s going to rebound from the setback and essentially will be back on the scene, better than ever.

Even as he continues to express sadness in all of the ensuing lines, Stick’s vibrant delivery has far too much optimism embedded in it to take his so-called grief seriously. He sounds impatient to get back on the scene, not resigned to endless nights of misery and loneliness and as such the rocker wins out in the end, vanquishing the bluesman who is far too used to dejection to put up much of a fight.

Unfortunately, for as much as we applaud that outcome, the presence of the two divergent musical personas within the same record can’t help but make that record feel schizophrenic. It’s still more than tolerable thanks to Stick’s performance and Terry’s moderation, but it also shows how far there was to go when it came to incorporating strict blues characteristics into a rock song.

It Won’t Last Long
After listening to this you can’t help but find a certain appropriateness in the title… or rather “titles” plural.

This was re-issued soon after with the appendage She’s Gone – Rock Away Blues, almost as if the folks at Atlantic were trying to both re-assure the rock audience they’d cultivated with McGhee that the record was indeed for them, while at the same time explaining the blues presence with the caveat that it would soon be departing.

That explanation was too little too late however and as much credit as Brownie McGhee deserves for aiding his brother’s career to this point with some more discreet work as an uncredited sideman, this side shows that when it came to Stick McGhee’s career, his fate was best left in his own hands from now on.

The funny thing about blues compared to rock in the end may just be this… whereas rock shot past it in terms of mass popularity and remains – in all of its many incarnations – just as dominant commercially seven decades later, the blues has a staying power that in many ways outdoes rock.

Because rock is so dependent on trends, generational allegiances and the emergence of countless subgenres, each with their own lifespan and fierce contingent of followers, it tends to ebb and flow, picking up followers and dropping others along the way as styles continually evolve, whereas the blues just chugs along, largely unchanged decade to decade.

Maybe that’s why even though Stick soared past Brownie in the 1949-1951 era, in the end it was Brownie McGhee who continued to to be relevant in a smaller field until he died many decades down the road.


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