Born blind in the town of Thomson, Georgia, McTell learned how to play the guitar during his teens. He soon became a street performer around several Georgia cities, namely Atlanta; and first recorded in 1927 for Victor Records. Although he never produced a major hit record, McTell's recording career was prolific, recording for different labels under different names all throughout the 1920s and 30s, often with other people. In 1940, he was recorded by John Lomax for the Library of Congress's folk song archive. He would remain active throughout the 1940s and 50s, playing on the streets of Atlanta, often with his longtime partner Curley Weaver. Twice more he recorded professionally. McTell's last recordings originated during an impromptu session recorded by Atlanta record store owner Edward Rhodes in 1956; these were released posthumously. McTell would die three years later after suffering for years from diabetes and alcoholism. Despite his mainly failed releases, McTell was one of the few archaic blues musicians that would live to actively play and record during the 1940s and 50s (although, McTell never lived to be "rediscovered" during the imminent American folk music revival, where many other bluesman would be rediscovered and given a chance to record).
McTell's influence extended over a wide variety of artists, including The Allman Brothers Band, who famously covered McTell's "Statesboro Blues", and Bob Dylan, who paid tribute to McTell in his 1983 song "Blind Willie McTell". Other artists include Taj Mahal, Alvin Youngblood Hart, The White Stripes, and Chris Smither.
Born William Samuel McTier (or McTear) in Thomson, Georgia, blind in one eye, McTell had lost his remaining vision by late childhood but became an adept reader of Braille. He showed proficiency in music from an early age, first playing harmonica and accordian and turning to the six-string guitar in his early teens. Born into a musical family, both of his parents and an uncle played guitar; also, he is related to bluesman and gospel pioneer, Thomas A. Dorsey. His father left the family when McTell was still young, and when his mother died in the 1920s, he left his hometown and became a wandering busker. He began his recording career in 1927 for Victor Records in Atlanta.
In the years before World War II, he traveled and performed widely, recording for a number of labels under many different names, including Blind Willie McTell (Victor and Decca), Blind Sammie (Columbia), Georgia Bill (Okeh), Hot Shot Willie (Victor), Blind Willie (Vocalion and Bluebird), Barrelhouse Sammie (Atlantic), and Pig & Whistle Red (Regal).The "Pig 'n Whistle" appellation was a reference to a chain of Atlanta Bar-B-Que restaurants, one of which was located on the south side of East Ponce de Leon between Boulevard and Moreland Avenue. Blind Willie frequently played for tips in the parking lot of this location, which later became the Krispy Kreme. He was also known to play behind the nearby building that later became Ray Lee's Blue Lantern Lounge. His style was singular: a form of country blues bridging the gap between the raw blues of the early part of the 20th century and the more refined east coast "Piedmont" sound. He took on the less common and more unwieldy 12-string guitar because of its volume. The style is well documented on John Lomax's 1940 recordings of McTell for the Library of Congress. McTell earned $10 from these sessions, the equivalent of $154.56 in 2011.
In 1934, he married Ruthy Kate Williams (now better known as Kate McTell). She accompanied him on stage and on several recordings before becoming a nurse in 1939. Most of their marriage from 1942 until his death was spent apart, with her living in Fort Gordon near Augusta and him working around Atlanta.
Postwar, he recorded for Atlantic Records and Regal Records in 1949, but these recordings met with less commercial success than his previous works. He continued to perform around Atlanta, but his career was cut short by ill health, predominantly diabetes and alcoholism.
In 1956, an Atlanta record store manager, Edward Rhodes, discovered McTell playing in the street for quarters and enticed him with a bottle of corn liquor into his store, where he captured a few final performances on a tape recorder. These were released posthumously on Prestige/Bluesville Records as Last Session.
McTell died in Milledgeville, Georgia, of a stroke in 1959. He was buried at Jones Grove Church, near Thomson, Georgia, his birthplace. A fan paid to have a gravestone erected on his resting place. The name given on his gravestone is Eddie McTier.
He was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1981, and into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1990
Willie Samuel McTell, conocido en el mundo del blues como Blind Willie McTell, fue un guitarrista y cantante, nacido en Thomson, Georgia, en 1898, probablemente el 5 de mayo, y fallecido en Almón, en el mismo estado, el 19 de agosto de 1959.
McTell había sido educado en escuelas para ciegos de Georgia, Nueva York y Míchigan, aunque su ceguera no era total. Comenzó su actividad como músico callejero en Atlanta, donde consiguió convertirse en el rey. Grabó abundantemente, entre 1927 y 1956, sobre todo para productores de compañías discográficas que recopilaban folclore auténtico: siempre estaba localizable y accesible. Buena parte de estas grabaciones se editaron bajo seudónimos, como Blind Sammie, Georgia Bill o Pig'n Whistle Red. Gracias a estas grabaciones, para Alan y John Lomax, y los sellos Atlantic Records, Savoy Records o Regal, consiguió bastante fama, y pudo seguir grabando después de la guerra, aún cuando su estilo ya no estaba de moda, gracias al entusiasmo despertado en los aficionados al folk de todo el mundo. Llegó a viajar a Sudamérica.
En 1956, desapareció completamente de la circulación. En los años 1960 se rumoreaba que seguía tocando en garitos, pero en realidad había muerto en la miseria, ya completamente ciego, golpeado brutalmente por unos atracadores que le robaron su guitarra, en 1959.
Bob Dylan le dedicó una canción titulada "Blind Willie McTell", cuya melodía se basaba en la del tema "St. James Infirmary Blues" y cuya letra refleja la historia de la música de América y la esclavitud.