Big Bo McGee (1928-2002) was a blues performer, songwriter, and harmonica player. Never as well-known as some of his contemporaries, he nevertheless benefitted from a resurgence in interest in traditional blues and toured Europe in the 1990s as part of the duo Little Whitt and Big Bo. He later achieved acclaim for his work visiting schools and educating students about the blues.
McGee was born on October 9, 1928, as Cleo McGee, on the border between Emelle, Sumter County, and Porterville, Mississippi. Growing up straddling the state line, McGee later joked that his family could eat breakfast in Alabama and go to sleep in Mississippi. McGee's early musical training came from his grandmother, an experienced harmonica player and performer, who had McGee practice in a closet so he could hear the music better. The inspiration and training from his grandmother helped propel McGee onto the stage at age five, when he began performing at parties, gatherings, and juke joints (all-black nightclubs known for blues music) around the area.
As McGee grew older, he began listening to the recordings of early blues artists such as Washboard Slim and Blind Lemon Jefferson, performers whose popularity helped expose a broader audience to the sounds of rural African American music. McGee's musical tastes were broad, and he also expressed admiration for the "hillbilly" records of more mainstream country stars such as Eddy Arnold and Jimmie Rodgers. McGee's chosen instrument—the harmonica—traditionally had played important roles in both genres, and, as the blues electrified in the 1940s and 1950s, players such as harmonica virtuoso Little Walter provided further inspiration for fans and other harmonica players.
McGee's musical talents did not provide him with a steady income, however; he worked for nearly 40 years as a truck driver, including a stint hauling dangerous chemicals and explosives. During the 1950s, McGee began playing acoustic blues with a fellow driver, Jolly "Little Whitt" Wells; after they both retired from driving, Wells and McGee formed a full-time performing duo, known as Little Whitt and Big Bo. Although they began playing full-time only when well past middle age, Wells and McGee benefited from renewed interest in traditional blues during the latter part of the twentieth century, and they found a growing audience among younger fans who preferred the more authentic sounds of the earlier generations of blues players.
Never as famous as some of their contemporaries, Little Whitt and Big Bo did establish themselves as viable performers on the international blues circuit. In 1995, they toured Europe as part of a multi-act show that included several other American performers. As an acoustic duo with with Little Whitt Wells, McGee and Wells played shows throughout Europe and the United Kingdom and performed on several radio and television broadcasts, including a live session on BBC radio. The success of the European tour led to the 1997 release of the duo's (and McGee's) first album, Moody Swamp Blues, produced by the Alabama Blues Project. This collection featured Wells and McGee playing a combination of well-known blues numbers, along with three of McGee's originals:"Overseas Blues," "The Burning," and "You Go Your Way."
McGee remained an important figure in Alabama blues even after his resurgence in popularity waned in the later 1990s. In one of his most prominent projects, he traveled extensively to schools, performing for students and teaching them about the art and traditions of blues music. For these efforts, McGee received the Alabama Blues Ambassador award, presented by the Alabama Blues Project, in 2000. In 2001, McGee was named the recipient of the Folk Heritage Award, presented by the Alabama State Council on the Arts.
On March 3, 2002, McGee was stabbed to death in his Eutaw, Greene County, home; his 22-year-old stepson, Johnny Pebbles, was charged with the killing. The Alabama Blues Society and Alabama Blues Project collaborated to help pay for his funeral, even agreeing to donate the proceeds from their already-scheduled anniversary show in Tuscaloosa.
Charles L. Hughes
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Published October 20, 2009
Last updated September 11, 2014