Big Bill Broonzy (26 June 1898 – 14 August 1958) was a prolific American blues singer, songwriter and guitarist. His career began in the 1920s when he played Country blues to mostly black audiences. Through the ‘30s and ‘40s he successfully navigated a transition in style to a more urban blues sound popular with white 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 that his compositions reflected the many vantage points of his rural-to-urban experiences.
In 1915, seventeen-year-old Bill Broonzy had married and was working his own land as a sharecropper. He had decided to give up the fiddle and become a preacher. There is a story that he was offered fifty dollars and a new violin if he would play 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 in the local coal mine until he was drafted into the Army in 1917. Broonzy served two years in Europe during the first world war. After his discharge from the Army in 1919, Broonzy returned for a short time to Arkansas and played clubs in the Little Rock area. As prospects were bleak for a young black man in the south, Bill, like many others, moved north to Chicago in 1920 in search of opportunity.
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 their new talent and the next few years saw more releases by "Big Bill and Thomps". The records continued to sell poorly. Reviewers considered his style immature and derivative.
In 1934 Broonzy moved to Bluebird Records and began recording with pianist Bob "Black Bob" Call. His fortunes soon improved. With Black Bob his music was evolving to a stronger Rhythm and Blues sound. His singing sounded more assured and personal. He began to define his own style, and audiences responded well. In 1937, he began playing with pianist Josh Althiemer, recording and performing using a small instrumental group, including "traps" (drums) and acoustic bass as well as one or more melody instruments (horns and/or harmonica). In March 1938 he began recording for Vocalion Records. Broonzy's reputation grew and in 1938 he was asked to fill in for the recently deceased Robert Johnson at the John H. Hammond-produced From Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall. He also appeared in the 1939 concert at the same venue.
Big Bill Broonzy's own recorded output through the 1930s only partially reflects his importance to the Chicago blues scene. His half-brother, Washboard Sam, and close friends, Jazz Gillum, and Tampa Red, also recorded for Bluebird. Broonzy was credited as composer on many of their most popular recordings of that time. He reportedly played guitar on most of Washboard Sam's tracks. Due to his exclusive arrangements with his own record label, Broonzy was always careful to have his name only appear on these artists' records as "composer".
In Europe Big Bill Broonzy 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, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and Leadbelly. From 1953 on his financial position became more secure and he was able to live quite well on his music earnings. Broonzy returned to his solo folk-blues roots, and travelled and recorded extensively.
In a lesser known aspect of his life, whilst in Holland (Amsterdam) Broonzy met and fell in love with a Dutch girl, Pim van Isveldt. Together they had a child named Michael who still lives in Amsterdam.
In 1953, Dr. Vera (King) Morkovin and Studs Terkel took Big Bill to Circle Pines Center, a cooperative year-round camp in Hastings, Michigan, where he was employed as the summer camp cook. Bill worked there in the summer from '53-'56. On July 4, 1954, Pete Seeger travelled to Circle Pines and gave a concert with Bill on the farmhouse lawn, which was recorded by Seeger for the new fine arts radio station in Chicago, WFMT-FM. That tape today reveals a blues singer who also sang the popular music of the day with a powerful voice and a magnificent guitar style.
In 1955, with the assistance of Danish writer Yannick Bruynoghe, Broonzy published his autobiography entitled Big Bill Blues. He toured worldwide 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. At the school's opening night on December 1, he taught a class his song "The Glory of Love".
Although he had been a pioneer of the Chicago blues style and had employed electric instruments as early as 1942, his new, white audiences wanted to hear him playing his earliest songs accompanied only by his own acoustic guitar, since this was considered to be more "authentic".
A considerable part of his early ARC/CBS recordings have been reissued in anthology collections by CBS-Sony, and other earlier recordings have been collected on blues reissue labels, as have his later European and Chicago recordings of the fifties.
Since Broonzy was never a spectacular electric guitarist in the manner of others of his early-1950s contemporaries, he is not as well known as others of that period, and was not extensively covered during the "British Blues Revival" of the 1960s; however, he did gain some popularity, with "Key to the Highway" featured on Derek and the Dominos' album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. He was an acclaimed acoustic guitar player, and a major source of inspiration to men like Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim, and Ray Davies.
In Q Magazine (September 2007) it is reported that Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones claims that Bill Broonzy's track, "Guitar Shuffle", is his favorite guitar music. Wood said, "It was one of the first tracks I learnt to play, but even to this day I can't play it exactly right".
Broonzy recorded over 350 compositions.