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broonzy

Big Bill Broonzy

Big Bill Broonzy (26 June 189814 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.

Life and career

Early years

"Big Bill" was born William Lee Conley Broonzy in Scott County, Mississippi, one of Frank Broonzy and Mittie Belcher's 17 children. Broonzy claimed he was born in 1893, and many sources report that year. But after his death his twin sister produced a birth certificate giving it as 1898, the currently accepted date. Soon after his birth the family moved to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where Bill spent most of his youth. He began playing music at an early age. At the age of ten 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 named 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 danced on one side of the stage and blacks on the other.

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.

1920s

After arriving in The Windy City, Broonzy made the switch to guitar. He learned guitar from minstrel and medicine show veteran Papa Charlie Jackson, who began recording for Paramount Records in 1924. Through the 1920s Broonzy worked 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 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.

1930s

In 1930 Paramount for the first time used Big Bill's full name on a recording, "Station Blues". But it was misspelled as "Big Bill Broomsley". Record sales continued to be poor, and Broonzy was working at a grocery store. Broonzy was picked up by Lester Melrose, who produced acts for various labels including Champion and Gennett Records. He recorded several sides which were released in the spring of 1931 under the name "Big Bill Johnson". In March 1932 he traveled to New York and began recording for the American Record Corporation on their line of less expensive labels: (Melotone, Perfect Records, et al.). These recordings sold better and Broonzy began to become better known. Back in Chicago he was working regularly in Chicago's South Side clubs, and even toured with Memphis Minnie..

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".

1940s

Despite his successes, Big Bill's audiences were still small in the 1940s, and he again needed to work outside music to make ends meet. He supported himself working as a cook, porter, molder, piano mover, and whatever work he could find. He still continued to record, moving to Columbia Records in 1945. One of his best-known songs, "Key to the Highway", was written at that time. When the second American Federation of Musicians strike ended in 1948, Broonzy was picked up by the Mercury label, for whom he made a handful of records.

1950s

At the start of the 1950s, Broonzy's career seemed to be at a standstill, and he considered giving up the music business. But he had become part of a touring folk music revue formed by Win Stracke called I Come for to Sing, which also included Studs Terkel and William Lane. Terkel called him the key figure in this group. The group had some success thanks to the emerging folk revival movement. The exposure made it possible for Bill to tour Europe in 1951.

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".

By 1958 Big Bill was suffering from the effects of throat cancer. Broonzy died August 15, 1958, and is buried in Lincoln Cemetery, Blue Island, Illinois.

Style and influence

Broonzy's own influences included the spirituals, 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 that foreshadowed the post-war Chicago blues sound, 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, 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.

Honors

He was inducted into the Gennett Records Walk of Fame in Richmond, Indiana in 2007.

Discography

  • "Big Bill's Blues" b/w "House Rent Stomp" (Paramount 12656) 1927
  • "Down in the Basement Blues" b/w "The Starvation Blues" (Paramount 12707) 1928
  • "Station Blues" b/w "How You Want It Done" (Paramount 13084) 1930
  • "Big Bill Blues" (Champion 16400) 1931
  • "Take Your Hands Off Her" b/w "The Sun's Gonna Shine In My Back Door Someday" (Bluebird 6188) 1935

See also

External links

References

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