His real name was William Samuel McTier and he was born in Thomson, Georgia. Born bind in one eye, he lost his vision completely after several years, but was a skilled reader of Braille. He had an interest in music from an young age and taught himself to pick six-string guitar as soon as was possible. His father deserted the family when McTell was a boy, and after his mother passed on, he left town and became a traveling player. He started recording in 1927 with Victor Records;
Before World War II, he traveled and played all over the country, performing for several labels using a pseudonym name for every one, names such as Blind Willie McTell for Victor and Decca, Blind Sammie for Columbia, Georgia Bill for Okeh, Hot Shot Willie (Victor), Blind Willie (Vocalion), Red Hot Willie Glaze (Bluebird), Barrelhouse Sammie (Atlantic) and Pig & Whistle Red (Regal).
Blind Willie very often played for small change in the parking lot of the Blue Lantern Lounge. He had a particular style: a kind of old blues, which bridged the gulf between the raw blues of the early part of the 20th Century and the "Piedmont" sound from the East Coast. He like to play the less used (and harder to play) 12-string guitar as it was louder than 6 string. The technique is well noted on the 1940 John Lomax recordings (Library of Congress), for which Willie was paid 10 dollars (about $155).
He is a little out of the ordinary, if not completely one of a king, amongst any blues men in his skill of playing the guitar in both a complicated , ragtime
style like Blind Blake, and a bottleneck blues technique("Three Women
Blues"). His technique in both styles is expertly done, with fluidity and creative; when we look at different recording sessions of the same song (, we find that he didn't play a song in quite the same way more than once.
In 1934, he wed Ruthy Kate Williams ( known as Kate McTell). She performed with him on stage and on several studio sessions, before she became a nurse in around 1939. Most of their time in marriage until his death was spent separated, as she lived in Fort Gordon near Augusta, and he worked around Atlanta.
After the second world war, he made some records with Atlantic and Regal Records in 1949, but these were not as successful as his previous work. He kept playing around Atlanta, but he had to stop due to ill health, which was mostly the effects diabetes and alcoholism.
In 1956, Edward Rhodes (a record store manager) came across McTell playing on the streets for tips and persuaded him into his store with a bottle of whisky, where he recorded some songs ad-hoc.. These were later released on Prestige/Bluesville Records.
He passed away in Milledgeville, Georgia, after a stroke
in 1959. He's interred at Jones Grove Church, Thomson, Georgia, where he was born. One of his fans paid for his gravestone
He was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1981.