Sticks McGhee

1947-1951

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Back in 1942 when Private Granville Henely "Sticks" McGhee was in boot camp, he heard a pack of recruits singing a rowdy song about getting loaded. The obscene refrain went something like this: "Drinkin' wine, motherf*cker, drinkin' wine." After surviving war wounds in the Pacific, he made his way to New York with his big brother guitarist Brownie McGhee. Drawing upon important lessons learned in basic training, Sticks concocted his own arrangement of the wine song and recorded it with Brownie in 1947. Released on the Harlem record label, this scruffy little number sold poorly and was soon deleted from the Harlem catalog by the label's owner, J. Mayo Williams. Sometime during 1948, someone started playing McGhee's song over the radio in New Orleans, and soon the McGhee brothers had a hit record on their hands with virtually no copies to sell. On Valentine's Day 1949, a second, slicker version was recorded for the Atlantic label with piano and bass accompaniment by Wilbert "Big Chief" Ellis and Kansas City bass ace Gene Ramey. Williams then sold the original recording to the people who ran the Decca label. They in turn reissued it in an unsuccessful attempt to compete with the Atlantic hit. Today it's good to have both versions on the same disc, and some may actually prefer the modest first recording over the hit single. Note that in 1947 Sticks sets the action in Petersburg, whereas once a market had cropped up in the Crescent City, he adapted the opening line to refer to New Orleans specifically. Note also that Sticks was not a drummer, as his nickname might imply. As a boy, Granville maneuvered his brother Brownie -- crippled by the poliovirus -- through the streets of Kingsport, TN, in a cart, using a large wooden stick to push him along. As a professional musician Sticks strummed twangy guitar and sang in a robust voice. When he wasn't cutting up and making references to everyday life with its many opportunities for misbehavior, Sticks could sing quite pleasantly, as he does on "Blue and Brokenhearted." Inevitably he cooked up another jump tune based on the "Spo-Dee-O-Dee" formula: "Drank Up All the Wine Last Night" is just as much fun but didn't sell nearly as well. Neither did "One Monkey Don't Stop the Show" although Big Maybelle's meaty version must have provided him with royalties. The only Sticks McGhee record that made as big of a splash as the Atlantic "Drinkin' Wine" was a handsome 1950 instrumental rhythm & blues version of "Tennessee Waltz" beefed up with soulful tenor sax, groovy piano, and electric guitar. After violating his contract with Atlantic by making two sides for the London label in 1951, Sticks was chucked from Atlantic's roster and would spend the next decade recording for Essex, King, Savoy, and Herald. Smitten by lung cancer he was only 44 when he died in the Bronx Veteran's Hospital in August of 1961.

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