Born William Lee Conley Broonzy, June 26, 1898 (some sources say 1893), in Scott, MS; died of lung cancer, August 15, 1958, in Chicago, IL; son of Frank (a farmer) and Mittie (Belcher) Broonzy; married Guitrue Embria, 1916; married Rosie Syphen, 1958; five children. Military/Wartime Service: U.S. Army, 1917-19, served in Europe during World War I.
Big Bill Broonzy was among the finest and most influential of the pre-World War II Chicago blues singers, bringing the blues to new levels of sophistication; in his postwar career as a folk-blues singer, he introduced the music to white audiences, including many young guitarists--Eric Clapton for one--who became rock and blues stars in the 1960s.
Broonzy was born in Mississippi but grew up in Arkansas, one of 17 children of parents born into slavery. Like his father, he became a sharecropper, but in 1903 his uncle, Jerry Belcher, made him a fiddle from a cigar box and taught him how to play. Broonzy and his friend Louis Martin, a guitarist, played country string band music at parties and picnics until 1912, when Broonzy decided to become a preacher and so gave up secular music and abandoned his fiddle. A few years later he was offered $50 and a new violin for a performance; as Sam Charters told it in The Country Blues, he would have refused, but his wife accepted for him and spent the money, leaving him no choice but to play. He continued farming as well, but in 1916 drought wiped out his crops, and the next year he was drafted and sent to Europe to fight in World War I.
By the time Broonzy returned from the army, he had lost whatever taste he had for farming, and in 1920 he moved to Chicago to take a job with the Pullman Company. He was making good money, but he was ambitious, and music still appealed to him. Nonetheless, the country fiddle tunes he had learned in Arkansas held no appeal for sophisticated Chicago audiences. Though some sources describe him playing guitar in those early years, he told Studs Turkel in 1958, in an article reprinted in Guitar Player 15 years later, "I didn't play guitar until I came to Chicago.... Started in 1921, didn't get good at it until 1923. I must have been around thirty."
Broonzy got Papa Charlie Jackson, a popular blues singer, to teach him guitar, and he began pestering Mayo Williams of Paramount Records for a recording date. Williams was reluctant but finally agreed, and Broonzy's first record, "House Rent Stomp," backed with "Big Bill Blues," was released in 1927. It was not a success. In fact, Charters observed: "Bill's Paramount recordings were probably the most unpromising first records ever made by any blues singer. He was terrible. Arkansas had never had much of a blues tradition; so Bill had to learn to sing by listening to records. He was trying to imitate Blind Lemon [Jefferson], but he didn't have Lemon's voice."
Over the next few years, Broonzy cut more records for Paramount and other labels and experimented with different styles. Many of the early records were "hokum songs," lighthearted, ragtime-based ditties, often with sexually suggestive lyrics; others were straight blues. None sold very well until 1932, when Broonzy made several records for the American Recording Corporation, which for the first time earned him some money.
In 1934 he joined forces with a piano player named Black Bob and began recording on RCA's Bluebird label and scoring real hits. Then, in 1937, he hooked up with another pianist, Joshua Altheimer, and added bass, drums, and sometimes trumpet or clarinet to form Big Bill Broonzy's Memphis Five--though he never seemed to have spent much time in Memphis.
The music, as Bruce Cook wrote in Listen to the Blues, "was a kind of good-time style that mixed blues with dance music," and, as Country Blues author Charters wrote, "Bill had found his own style.... He had been awkward and stiff as a shouter,... but as a warm, entertaining blues singer he had no equal." It was a polished, danceable, version of the blues, and it went over very well.
Broonzy was soon one of the most popular blues singers in the country, though his popularity was limited to black audiences--few whites had yet been exposed to the blues. Broonzy would soon change that. In 1939 record producer John Hammond was preparing for his second "Spirituals to Swing" concert at New York City's Carnegie Hall. He wanted to emphasize the roots of black music and had chosen Robert Johnson to perform as a representative of "primitive blues." But shortly before the concert, Hammond learned that Johnson had been murdered the year before, and Big Bill Broonzy was tapped as a last-minute replacement. He was, Lawrence Cohn wrote in the liner notes to the CD Good Time Tonight, "an unqualified hit, termed 'unforgettable' by some."
The triumph was loaded with irony: Broonzy was by then the Vocalion label's best-selling recording artist with black audiences, playing his modern blues style, but the white urban intellectuals at Carnegie Hall mistrusted commercialism in music--they wanted their blues singers rustic. Accordingly, Broonzy was introduced as an "ex-sharecropper," Charters noted, though he had not been on a farm in over 20 years.
Nor was Broonzy's repertoire based in folk music. He was a prolific songwriter who had learned the blues from records and from the progressive Chicago scene. He was no rustic, but a consummate professional, and in the spirit of professionalism he gave the audience what it wanted: he became a folksinger for the evening, and, as Charters recounted, "when two young enthusiasts cornered him and asked him to sing some sharecroppers' ongs, he managed to explain that he didn't want to sing any because he might have to go back to sharecropping."
Broonzy continued to play and record his modern, danceable blues while playing occasional folk-style concerts for white audiences. But by the late 1940s, the new electric-guitar-dominated blues of Muddy Waters--whom Broonzy had introduced to the Chicago blues scene--made Broonzy's sound outdated. He wrote in his autobiography, Big Bill Blues, "Some Negroes tell me that the old style of blues is carrying Negroes ... back to slavery--and who wants to be reminded of slavery? And some say this ain't slavery no more, so why don't you learn to play something else?... I just tell them I can't play nothing else." By 1950 he had given up music almost completely and was working as a janitor at Iowa State University.
It was then that he was "rediscovered" by white folk musicians and audiences in the Chicago area, especially by writer Studs Turkel, who frequently had Broonzy as a guest on his radio show. He changed his style to meet the demands of his revived career: he roughened his voice, simplified his guitar style, used freer rhythmic structures than he had in the dance-oriented blues of his Chicago heyday, and added more spirituals and "folk songs" to his repertoire. His impatience with folk purists, however, gave rise to his most-quoted remark. "I guess all songs is folk songs," Time reported him as saying, "I never heard no horse sing 'em."
In 1951 Broonzy toured Europe, one of the first bluesmen to do so; he later performed in Africa, South America, and Australia. Audiences were appreciative, especially in England; his records sold well, too, and were heard by many young musicians, including Eric Clapton, who credited Broonzy as one of his first influences and recorded Broonzy's "Key to the Highway" with his band Derek and the Dominoes.
By 1953 Broonzy was able to make a living at music, something that had rarely been possible even at the peak of his early popularity. He enjoyed his role as elder statesman of the blues and appreciated the impact the blues were having on popular music. Of Elvis Presley he said to Turkel: "I like what he's doin'. He's rockin' the blues, that's all he's doin'.... Rock an' roll is here to stay because it comes from natural people. Rock an' roll is a natural steal from the blues an' the blues'll never die. The blues can't die because it's a natural steal from the spirituals." But Broonzy was more ambivalent about Ray Charles's blend of blues and gospel, saying, according to Peter Guralnick in The Listener's Guide to the Blues, "He's mixing the blues with the spirituals. He should be singing in church."
In 1957 Broonzy was diagnosed with lung cancer. An operation left him voiceless, but he continued to perform on guitar for the remaining months of his life. He died in an ambulance on the way to a Chicago hospital in August of 1958. He had summed up his life and career in his autobiography a few years earlier: "When you write about me please don't say I'm a jazz musician. Don't say I'm a musician or a guitar player--just write Big Bill was a well-known blues singer and player and has recorded 260 blues songs from 1925 up till 1952; he was a happy man when he was drunk and playing with women; he was liked by all the blues singers." As Bob Groom wrote in Blues World magazine, "He can safely be ranked as one of the blues immortals."
by Tim Connor
Big Bill Broonzy's Career
Worked as farm hand and itinerant preacher, Scott, MS, and Pine Bluff, AR, early 1900s-1917; played violin at local churches and parties; played violin at clubs in Little Rock, AR, 1919-20; worked for the Pullman Company, Chicago, beginning in 1920; accompanied various blues singers at clubs and on record, early 1920s; made first solo recordings, 1927; recorded more than two hundred songs for various labels, including Paramount, American, Banner, Champion, Bluebird, Vocalion, Columbia, Mercury, Chess, Verve, and Folkways; toured the U.S., 1930s and 1940s; worked as a janitor at Iowa State University, c. 1950; toured Europe and performed in South America, Africa, and Australia, 1950s; performed in Chicago area until 1957; appeared in documentary films Low Light and Blue Smoke, 1956, and Big Bill Blues, 1956. Composer of numerous songs, including "Key to the Highway," "Black, Brown, and White," "Just a Dream," "Hard Hearted Woman," "Romance Without Finance," and "When Will I Get to Be Called a Man."
- Selective Works
- Big Bill Broonzy: His Story, Folkways, 1957.
- Big Bill's Blues, Columbia, 1958.
- Big Bill Broonzy, Volume 1, Document, 1986.
- Big Bill Broonzy, Volume 2, Document, 1986.
- Big Bill Broonzy 1934-1947, Story of Blues, 1986.
- Black, Brown & White, Storyville, 1986.
- (With Washboard Sam) Big Bill Broonzy and Washboard Sam, MCA, 1986.
- Do That Guitar Rag, Yazoo, 1988.
- Big Bill's Blues, Portrait Masters, 1988.
- Big Bill Broonzy Sings Folk Songs, Smithsonian Folkways, 1989.
- Big Bill Broonzy Sings Country Blues, Smithsonian Folkways, 1989.
- Feelin' Low Down, Vogue, 1989.
- Good Time Tonight, Columbia, 1990.
- In Chicago, EPM Musique, 1990.
- (With Memphis Slim and Sonny Boy Williamson) Blues in the Mississippi Night, Rykodisc, 1990.
- The Young Big Bill Broonzy, 1928-1935, Yazoo, 1991.
- Unissued Test Pressings: Le Hot Club de France, Milan, 1992.
- Big Bill Broonzy 1935-1947, Best of Blues.
- Historic Concert Recordings, Southland.
- Big Bill Broonzy (1935-1940), Black and Blue.
- Broonzy, Big Bill, Big Bill Blues: William Broonzy's Story as Told to Yannick Bruyoghe, Oak Publications, 1964.
- Charters, Sam, The Country Blues, Da Capo, 1975.
- Cook, Bruce, Listen to the Blues, Scribner's, 1973.
- Feather, Leonard, The Encyclopedia of Jazz, Horizon, 1960.
- Guralnick, Peter, The Listener's Guide to the Blues, Facts on File, 1982.
- Hardy, Phil, The Faber Companion to 20th Century Popular Music, Faber & Faber, 1990.
- Keil, Charles, Urban Blues, University of Chicago Press, 1966.
- Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Folk, Country, and Western Music, St. Martin's, 1969.
- Periodicals Blues World, August 1970.
- Guitar Player, April 1973.
- Time, November 23, 1962.
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