Sonny Terry was born Tedell Saunders Terry in Greenwood, GA, October 24, 1912. He grew up on a poor farm in North Carolina, raised by hardworking parents. Due to two separate childhood accidents, Sonny was blind from a very young age. His father, Reuben used to play the harmonica during his down times, spawning a love of the instrument in his son. Around the age of four or five, Sonny was getting curious about this instrument that his father played so well. It was kept on a shelf, high in the corner, away from prying little fingers. But this proved to be no deterrent to little Sonny; he was soon climbing the back of the rocking chair trying to reach that harmonica. Once his father noticed that his son had such an interest in the instrument, instead of scolding his child, he went out and bought Sonny his very own harmonica, for the luxurious price of a quarter. Curious to see how it made sound, Sonny tore it apart to get to the inside. His father warned him, "That dear little thing you tore up there gonna make a living for you when I’m dead and gone." And he was right.
After his father was killed in a transport truck accident, Sonny Terry left home for good. He wandered about the South, adding songs of the road to his extensive repertoire of gospel and work songs. He played on the street corners for change or in small clubs to make his living. Slowly but surely, his father’s prediction came true. Blind Sonny Terry was getting his name on the circuit, and attracting the interest of other blues players and folklorists. He played with a number of well known artists, including his good friend Leadbelly, throughout the 30s.
While playing on the street one day, he met Blind Boy Fuller, one performer that he would become closely associated with. Fuller was playing on one side, and Terry on the other
when they decided to combine efforts. These efforts resulted in a trip to New York to play the "Spirituals to Swing" concert of 1938. These two recorded together often, teaming up with Brownie McGhee in 1939. After Fuller’s death in 1940, McGhee and Terry combined talents to produce one of the mightiest duos of the blues world, a collaboration that would last for thirty years. These two would record numerous albums and would become a staple of many folk festivals of the fifties and sixties, playing several hundred shows a year. Like his partner, Terry recorded solo often, creating "City Blues" in 1949. He also played with friends on their albums. He has performed with Seeger and Guthrie, forming the ‘Streamline Singers", and has also performed in a number of Broadway shows.
Sonny Terry died of cancer in New York, March 12, 1986.