Big Bill Broonzy - Biography
By J Poet
Big Bill Broonzy (William Lee Conley Broonzy) was born in Scott County, Mississippi, in 1898, during the height of segregation and his childhood experiences dealing with racial decimation influenced his music and politics for the rest of his life. His singing, songwriting and guitar playing were unique, more blues based than straight blues, with a driving, rhythmic style that foreshadowed the electric sound of his friend Muddy Waters. After moving to Chicago after WWI, he pioneered the fusion of country blues with urban influences that created the sound of modern Chicago blues. He wrote hundreds of semi-autobiographical songs including the Civil Rights anthem “White, Brown and Black” and the blues standard “Key to the Highway.” He recorded prolifically, making over 350 78 singles and albums for companies including Columbia, Bluebird, Okey!, Paramount, Vocalion, Mercury and Folkways. He represented the blues at John Hammond’s legendary Spirituals to Swing concerts of 1938 and ‘39. In the late 50s, the burgeoning folk music movement discovered him and he toured extensively in South America, Africa, Asia and Europe, where he was an early blues superstar. He wrote a well-received biography, Big Bill Blues (with Danish writer Yannick Bruynoghe) in 1955 and was a founder of the Old Town School of Folk Music, which still thrives today. He died of throat cancer in 1958.
Broonzy was one of 17 children born to Frank Broonzy and Mittie Belcher.
He got interested in music while still a child and made a fiddle from a cigar box when he was 10. His uncle, Jerry Belcher, taught him how to play and with his friend Louis Carter, played for tips at church functions and “two-stages,” picnics where whites danced on one side of the stage and blacks on the other. He never finished grammar school; he had to quit to help his father in the fields, but his later lyrical dexterity shows he had a sharp intellect. The family moved to Pine Bluff, Arkansas and Broonzy played fiddle in churches and married at 17. He gave up music in 1912 to be a farmer and preacher. After serving in the Army in Europe during World War I, Broonzy lived in Little Rock, AR and played fiddle in nightclubs, heading north to Chicago around 1924.
In Chicago, Broonzy picked up the guitar and learned how to play from Papa Charlie Jackson, writer of “Salty Dog Blues.” He could flat pick, finger pick and bang out relentless rhythms; vocally he could croon or belt out a field holler with booming volume. Broonzy worked as a Pullman porter, cook, janitor, but music was his passion. Jackson helped him get a deal with Paramount Records, but Broonzy’s first efforts sold poorly. He also played guitar behind other blues artists on their recordings including Sonny Boy Williamson and Bumblebee Slim. In 1932 he recorded for the American Record Corporation, a company that ran many budget labels and his singles sold well enough to get him gigs in Chicago’s South Side clubs. He toured briefly with the legendary Memphis Minnie.
In 1934 he made some well-received records with Black Bob Call, a pianist, and started developing his blend of blues, ragtime, gospel music and hokum, a risqué style specializing in double entendre tunes aimed at the white market. In 1937 he had a band with pianist Josh Althiemer and various drummers, bass men and horn players playing what would soon be called R&B. He recorded for Vocalion later in the 30s and wrote songs recorded by his half brother Washboard Sam (who he frequently backed up anonymously due to contractual obligations), Tampa Red and Jazz Gillum. Those records made him famous in blues circles and he was a star in Chicago. When Robert Johnson died suddenly, Broonzy took his place at John Hammond’s legendary Spirituals to Swing Carnegie Hall concerts of 1938 and ‘39. It was the first time he played for a white audience; his booming vocals and tall stature earned him his “Big Bill” nickname. Although his records sold well and he was popular, Broonzy still needed day jobs to support himself. In the 40s he moved to Columbia where he first recorded “Key to the Highway,” later an R&B hit for Little Walter. When Muddy Waters first came to Chicago in 1943, Broonzy helped him get his first club dates.
In the 50s, he was thinking about giving up music again. Muddy Waters and other were playing electric guitar, a skill Broonzy never mastered. Then the folk music crowd discovered him and embraced his music. He toured Europe for the first time as a folk artist in 1951, and crowds went mad for his exuberant vocals and driving guitar style. He began touring with Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and finally was able to make a living with his music. In the mid 50s he toured Africa, South America, the Pacific region and Europe. He helped start the Oldtown Folk Music School shortly before he died of throat cancer in 1958. In 1980, he was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame.
Broonzy recorded for dozens of labels and like many bluesmen, used a variety of names to keep making records and getting paid. The most comprehensive collection is the 12 volume Complete Works of Big Bill Broonzy (1994, Document Records, Austria.) Other worthwhile CDs: The Essential Big Bill Broonzy (2001, Document 2 CD), Big Bill Broonzy Sings Folksongs (1956, Folkways), Country Blues (1957, Folkways), Treat Me Right (1996, Tradition),