Big Bill Broonzy (June 26, 1893 or 1903 – August 14 or 15, 1958) was an American blues singer, songwriter and guitarist. His career began in the 1920s when he played country blues to mostly African-American audiences. Through the 1930s and 1940s he successfully navigated a transition in style to a more urban blues sound popular with working-class African-American audiences. In the 1950s a return to his traditional folk-blues roots made him one of the leading figures of the emerging American folk music revival and an international star. His long and varied career marks him as one of the key figures in the development of blues music in the 20th century.
Broonzy copyrighted more than 300 songs during his lifetime, including both adaptations of traditional folk songs and original blues songs. As a blues composer, he was unique in writing songs that reflected his rural-to-urban experiences.
Life and career
Born Lee Conley Bradley, he was one of the seventeen children of Frank Broonzy (Bradley) and Mittie Belcher. The date and place of his birth are disputed. Broonzy claimed to have been born in Scott, Mississippi, but a body of emerging research compiled by the blues historian Robert Reisman suggests that he was born in Jefferson County, Arkansas. Broonzy claimed he was born in 1893, and many sources report that year, but family records discovered after his death suggested that the year was 1903. Soon after his birth the family moved to an area near Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where Bill spent his youth. He began playing music at an early age. At the age of 10 he made himself a fiddle from a cigar box and learned how to play spirituals and folk songs from his uncle, Jerry Belcher. He and a friend, Louis Carter, who played a homemade guitar, began performing at social and church functions. These early performances included playing at "two-stages": picnics where whites and blacks danced at the same event, but with different stages for blacks and whites.
On the understanding that he was born in 1898 rather than earlier or later, sources suggest that in 1915, 17-year-old Broonzy was married and working as a sharecropper. He had given up playing the fiddle and had become a preacher. There is a story that he was offered $50 and a new violin if he would play for four days at a local venue. Before he could respond to the offer, his wife took the money and spent it, so he had to play. In 1916 his crop and stock were wiped out by drought. Broonzy went to work locally until he was drafted into the Army in 1917. He served for two years in Europe during the First World War. After his discharge from the Army in 1919, he returned to the Pine Bluff area, where he is reported to have been called a racial epithet and told by a white man he knew before the war that he needed to "hurry up and get his soldier uniform off and put on some overalls." He immediately left Pine Bluff and moved to the Little Rock area. A year later, in 1920, he moved north to Chicago in search of opportunity.
After arriving in Chicago, Broonzy switched from fiddle to guitar. He learned to play the guitar from the veteran minstrel and medicine show performer Papa Charlie Jackson, who began recording for Paramount Records in 1924. Through the 1920s Broonzy worked at a string of odd jobs, including Pullman porter, cook, foundry worker and custodian, to supplement his income, but his main interest was music. He played regularly at rent parties and social gatherings, steadily improving his guitar playing. During this time he wrote one of his signature tunes, a solo guitar piece called "Saturday Night Rub".
Thanks to his association with Jackson, Broonzy was able to get an audition with Paramount executive J. Mayo Williams. His initial test recordings, made with his friend John Thomas on vocals, were rejected, but Broonzy persisted, and his second try, a few months later, was more successful. His first record, "Big Bill's Blues", backed with "House Rent Stomp", credited to Big Bill and Thomps (Paramount 12656), was released in 1927. Although the recording was not well received, Paramount retained its new talent and in the next few years released more records by Big Bill and Thomps. The records sold poorly. Reviewers considered his style immature and derivative.
In 1930, Paramount for the first time used Broonzy's full name on a recording, "Station Blues" – albeit misspelled as "Big Bill Broomsley". Record sales continued to be poor, and Broonzy was working at a grocery store. He was picked up by Lester Melrose, who produced musical acts for various labels, including Champion Records and Gennett Records. Harum Scarums, a trio comprising Broonzy, Georgia Tom and Mozelle Alderson, recorded the two-part "Alabama Scratch" in Grafton, Wisconsin, for Paramount Records (Paramount 13054) in January 1931, and it was reported that it sounded "as if it was a real party." Broonzy recorded several sides released in the spring of 1931 under the name Big Bill Johnson. In March 1932 he traveled to New York City and began recording for the American Record Corporation on their line of less expensive labels (Melotone Records, Perfect Records and others). These recordings sold better, and Broonzy was becoming better known. Back in Chicago he was working regularly in South Side clubs, and he toured with Memphis Minnie.
In 1934 Broonzy moved to RCA Victor's subsidiary Bluebird Records and began recording with the pianist Bob "Black Bob" Call. His fortunes soon improved. With Call his music was evolving to a stronger R&B sound, and his singing sounded more assured and personal. In 1937, he began playing with the pianist Joshua Altheimer, recording and performing with a small instrumental group, including "traps" (drums), double bass and one or more melody instruments (horns or harmonica or both). In March 1938 he began recording for Vocalion Records.
Broonzy's reputation grew. In 1938 he was asked to fill in for the recently deceased Robert Johnson at the "From Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall, produced by John H. Hammond. He also appeared in the 1939 concert at the same venue. His success led him in the same year to a small role in Swingin' the Dream, Gilbert Seldes's jazz adaptation of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, set in New Orleans in 1890 and featuring, among others, Louis Armstrong as Bottom and Maxine Sullivan as Titania, with the Benny Goodman sextet.
Broonzy's recorded output through the 1930s only partially reflects his importance to Chicago blues. His half-brother, Washboard Sam, and his friends Jazz Gillum and Tampa Red also recorded for Bluebird. Broonzy was credited as the composer of many of their most popular recordings of that time. He reportedly played guitar on most of Washboard Sam's tracks. Because of his exclusive arrangements with his own record label, Broonzy was careful to allow his name to appear on these artists' records only as a composer.
Broonzy expanded his work during the 1940s as he honed his songwriting skills, which showed a knack for appealing to his more sophisticated city audience as well as people that shared his country roots. His work in this period shows he performed across a wider musical spectrum than almost any other bluesman before or since, including in his repertoire ragtime, hokum blues, country blues, urban blues, jazz-tinged songs, folk songs and spirituals. After World War II, Broonzy recorded songs that were the bridge that allowed many younger musicians to cross over to the future of the blues: the electric blues of postwar Chicago. His 1945 recordings of "Where the Blues Began", with Big Maceo on piano and Buster Bennett on sax, and "Martha Blues", with Memphis Slim on piano, clearly showed the way forward. One of his best-known songs, "Key to the Highway", appeared at this time. When the second American Federation of Musicians strike ended in 1948, Broonzy was signed by Mercury Records.
In 1949, Broonzy became part of a touring folk music revue, I Come for to Sing, formed by Win Stracke, which also included Studs Terkel and Lawrence Lane. Terkel called him the key figure in the group. The revue had some success thanks to the emerging folk revival. When the revue played at Iowa State University in Ames, Broonzy met a local couple, Leonard and Lillian Feinberg, who found him a custodial job at Iowa State when a doctor ordered Broonzy to discontinue touring later that year. He remained in Ames until 1951, when he resumed touring.
After his return to performing, the exposure from I Come for to Sing made it possible for Broonzy to tour Europe in 1951. Here he was greeted with standing ovations and critical praise wherever he played. The tour marked a turning point in his fortunes, and when he returned to the United States he was a featured act with many prominent folk artists, such as Pete Seeger and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. From 1953 on, his financial position became more secure, and he was able to live well on his earnings from music. He returned to his solo folk-blues roots and travelled and recorded extensively. Broonzy's numerous performances during the 1950s in British folk and jazz clubs were a significant influence on British audiences' understanding of the blues and bolstered the nascent British folk revival and early blues scene. Many British musicians on the folk scene, such as Bert Jansch, cited him as an important influence. John Lennon, of the Beatles, also cited Broonzy as an important early influence.
While in the Netherlands, Broonzy met and became romanically involved with a Dutch woman, Pim van Isveldt. Together they had a child, Michael, who still lives in Amsterdam.
In 1953, Vera (King) Morkovin and Studs Terkel took Broonzy to Circle Pines Center, a cooperative year-round camp in Delton, Michigan, where he was employed as the summer camp cook. He worked there in the summer from 1953 to 1956. On July 4, 1954, Pete Seeger travelled to Circle Pines and gave a concert with Broonzy on the farmhouse lawn, which was recorded by Seeger for the new fine-arts radio station in Chicago, WFMT-FM.
In 1955, with the assistance of the Belgian writer Yannick Bruynoghe, Broonzy published his autobiography, Big Bill Blues. He toured worldwide, travelling to Africa, South America, the Pacific region and across Europe into early 1956. In 1957 Broonzy was one of the founding faculty members of the Old Town School of Folk Music. On the school's opening night, December 1, he taught a class, "The Glory of Love".
Illness and death
By 1958 Broonzy was suffering from throat cancer. He died on August 14 or 15, 1958 (sources vary on the precise date), and is buried in Lincoln Cemetery, in Blue Island, Illinois.
Style and influence
Broonzy's influences included the folk music, spirituals, work songs, ragtime music, hokum, and country blues he heard growing up and the styles of his contemporaries, including Jimmie Rodgers, Blind Blake, Son House, and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Broonzy combined all these influences into his own style of the blues, which foreshadowed the postwar Chicago blues, later refined and popularized by artists such as Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon.
Although he had been a pioneer of the Chicago blues style and had employed electric instruments as early as 1942, white audiences in the 1950s and 1960s wanted to hear him playing his earlier songs accompanied only by his own acoustic guitar, which they considered to be more authentic.
He portrayed the discrimination against black Americans in the 1930s with the song "Black, Brown and White". The song has been used globally in education about racism, but in the late 1990s its inclusion in antiracism education at a school in Greater Manchester, England, led to pupils taunting the school's only black pupil with the song's chorus, "If you're white, that's all right, if you're brown, stick around, but if you're black, oh brother get back, get back, get back". The national media reported that the problem became so bad that the nine-year-old boy was withdrawn from the school by his mother; the boy had even tried to scrub the black off his skin and made threats to kill himself. The song had already been adopted by the National Front, a far-right British political party which peaked in popularity in the 1970s and opposed nonwhite immigration to Britain.
A considerable part of Broonzy's early ARC/CBS recordings has been reissued in anthologies by CBS-Sony, and other earlier recordings have been collected on blues reissue labels, as have his European and Chicago recordings of the 1950s. The Smithsonian's Folkways Records has also released several albums featuring Broonzy.
In 1980, he was inducted into the first class of the Blues Hall of Fame, along with 20 other of the world's greatest blues legends. In 2007, he was inducted into the first class of the Gennett Records Walk of Fame, along with 11 other musical greats, including Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Gene Autry, and Lawrence Welk.
Broonzy as an acoustic guitar player inspired Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim, Ray Davies, John Renbourn, Rory Gallagher, Ben Taylor, and Steve Howe.
In the September 2007 issue of Q Magazine, Ronnie Wood, of the Rolling Stones, cited Broonzy's track "Guitar Shuffle" as his favorite guitar music. Wood remarked, "It was one of the first tracks I learnt to play, but even to this day I can't play it exactly right."
Eric Clapton has cited Broonzy as a major inspiration, commenting that Broonzy "became like a role model for me, in terms of how to play the acoustic guitar." Clapton featured Broonzy's song "Hey Hey" on his album Unplugged. The Derek and the Dominos album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs includes their recording of "Key to the Highway".
Broonzy's influence on the roots rock band the Blasters is apparent. In 2014, the Blasters' founders Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin, as a duo, released the album Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy. Dave Alvin commented, "We're brothers, we argue sometimes, but one thing we never argue about is Big Bill Broonzy."
In the benediction at the 2009 inauguration ceremony of President Barack Obama, the civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery paraphrased Broonzy's song "Black, Brown and White Blues".
As part of the PopUp Archive project, in collaboration with the WFMT network, the Chicago History Museum, and the Library of Congress, an hour-long interview of Broonzy, recorded on September 13, 1955, by Studs Terkel was made available on-line. The interview includes reflections on his life and on the blues tradition, a performance of one of his most famous songs, "Albert," and performances of "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad" and other classics.
Between 1927 and 1942, Broonzy recorded 224 songs, which makes him the second most prolific blues recording artist during that period. These were released before blues records were tracked by recording industry trade magazines. By the time Billboard magazine instituted its "race music" charts in October 1942, Broonzy's recordings were less popular, and none appeared in the charts.
Many of Broonzy's singles were issued by more than one record company, sometimes under different names. Additional versions of some songs were also released. These are marked with a superscript plus sign.
|Date||Title||Label & Cat. no.||Comments|
|1927||"Big Bill's Blues"||Paramount 12656+||as Big Bill and Thomps|
|"House Rent Stomp"||Paramount 12656||as Big Bill and Thomps|
|1930||"Station Blues"||Paramount 13084||as Big Bill Broomsley|
|"Saturday Night Rub"||Perfect 147+||as Famous Hokum Boys|
|"I Can't Be Satisfied"||Perfect 157||as Sammy Sampson|
|1932||"Mistreatin' Mama"||Champion 16396+||as Big Bill Johnson|
|1934||"At the Break of Day"||Bluebird 5571+|
|"C. C. Rider"||Melotone 13311+|
|1935||"Midnight Special"||Vocalion 03004||as State Street Boys|
|"Bricks in My Pillow"||ARC 6–03–62|
|1936||"Matchbox Blues"||ARC 6–05–56+|
|1937||"Mean Old World"||Melotone 7–07–64+|
|1937||"Louise Louise Blues"||Vocalion 03075+|
|1938||"New Shake 'Em on Down"||Vocalion 04149+||electric guitar by George Barnes|
|"Night Time Is the Right Time No. 2"||Vocalion 04149+||electric guitar by George Barnes|
|1939||"Just a Dream"||Vocalion 04706+|
|"Too Many Drivers"||Vocalion 05096|
|1940||"You Better Cut That Out"||Okeh 05919|
|"Lonesome Road Blues"||Okeh 06031|
|"Rockin' Chair Blues"||Okeh 06116+|
|1941||"All By Myself"||Okeh 06427+|
|"Key to the Highway"||Okeh 06242+|
|"Wee Wee Hours"||Okeh 06552|
|"I Feel So Good"||Okeh 06688+|
|1942||"I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town"||Okeh 06651||as Big Bill & His Chicago 5|
|1951||"Hey Hey"||Mercury 8271|
Broonzy also appeared as a sideman on recordings by Lil Green, Sonny Boy Williamson I, Washboard Sam, and Jazz Gillum.
- Big Bill Broonzy and Washboard Sam (1953)
- Big Bill Broonzy and Roosevelt Sykes (DVD, recorded 1956)
- His Story (Folkways Records, 1957)
- Blues with Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee (Folkways Records, 1959)
- Big Bill Broonzy Sings Folk Songs (Smithsonian Folkways, 1989)
- Best of the Blues Tradition (1991)
- Do That Guitar Rag (1928–1935) (1991)
- Trouble In Mind (Smithsonian Folkways, 2000)
- Broonzy Volume 2: 1945–1949: The Post War Years (2000)
- Big Bill Broonzy in Concert (2002)
- Big Bill Broonzy on Tour in Britain: Live in England & Scotland (2002)
- Big Bill Blues: His 23 Greatest Songs 1927–42 (2004)
- Get Back (2004)
- Big Bill Amsterdam Live Concerts 1953 (2006)
- Keys to the Blues (2009)
- Wald, Elijah (2004). Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. Harper. p. 41. ISBN 978-0-06-052427-2.
- Whitburn, Joel (1988). Top R&B Singles 1942–1988. Record Research. p. 56. ISBN 0-89820-068-7.
- Herzhaft, Gerard (1992). Encyclopedia of the Blues. University of Arkansas Press. p. 39. ISBN 1-55728-252-8.