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Big Bill Broonzy sings folk songs as well as his well-known acoustic blues, but for most of his early career he was known as the swinging Chicago blues man. The Big Bill Broonzy discography includes such classics as Hey Hey, Key to the Highway, Get Back, Black Brown and White, Guitar Shuffle and Trouble in Mind.
Big Bill Broonzy Biography
Big Bill Broonzy’s complicated history
By Jeremy Glover
“Well, I was born in Mississippi, in the year 18 and 93. I was born on a plantation and I stayed there until I was eight years old. Then my daddy and mother, they brought us — me and my twin sister and about eight more of us — to Arkansas — that was Langdale — Langdale, Arkansas.”
— Big Bill Broonzy, from Alan Lomax’s “The Land Where the Blues Began”
The only true parts of that origin story are “born on a plantation” and “Arkansas.” In fact, Langdale doesn’t appear to exist anymore, if it was ever an actual place at all. And the sister he spoke of wasn’t his twin, but the closest sibling by birth and sheer love, which in his interpretation and expression would pretty much make them twins.
Inventing a hometown, moving your birthplace to a neighboring state, and setting your birthday a decade earlier in another century takes a real character — like the one Lee Conley Bradley created for himself: Big Bill Broonzy. One of the quintessential blues artists of the 20th century and a key link in the chain from the early blues of the 1920s to the folk revival of the 1950s, Broonzy’s contributions to American popular music cannot be overstated.
For an artist that remains relatively unknown today by even casual blues fans, his influence is staggering. This list includes, but is not limited to, Elvis Presley, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Pete Townshend and Ray Davies, who to this day never misses an opportunity to offer up praise and point out how The Kinks calling card “You Really Got Me” was his attempt at a great rhythm and blues song — something Big Bill Broonzy would play.
But before there was a Big Bill Broonzy, there was Lee Conley Bradley, who was born June 26, 1903, in Jefferson County, Arkansas, where he was raised with his nine siblings on a sharecropper plantation. That’s just one of the revelations in Chicago-based author Bob Riesman’s meticulously researched biography, “I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy” (The University of Chicago Press, 2011).
Riesman peels back the layers on a life story that may have been light on facts, but always had an essence of the truth. What emerges is an enlightening and highly enjoyable portrait of a man who seemingly always knew exactly who he was and where his trajectory lay in his immediate scene, in the lineage of roots music, and in the plight of rural, Southern African Americans.
Broonzy was blessed with a unique, emotive voice that could nimbly shift from a meditative, brooding drawl to rollicking, boisterous twang depending on the mood and the melody. His inimitable guitar playing functioned as an extension of his warm, expansive personality, creating a seamless presence with his skills as well as his look, manner and words. His affable nature and musical malleability would serve him well throughout his career.
Like most African Americans growing up in the segregated South under Jim Crow laws, Broonzy’s early life was marked by blistering hard work, commitment to the church and little formal education. The education he did receive away from church and the schoolhouse was his earliest musical influence, Uncle Jerry Belcher, who was likely an amalgamation of older relatives and family friends since no historical records of him exist. Broonzy learned his earliest songs from listening to the decidedly non-church going Uncle Jerry play instruments created out of tubs, brooms and other household items. This might have inspired Broonzy’s first instrument, a fiddle fashioned out of cornstalks brought back from the cotton fields where he toiled.
The young Broonzy joined up with like-minded friends, who played homemade fiddles and guitars, to form a string band. They spent their teenage years learning to play a variety of styles to satisfy the segregated audiences at weekend-long picnics and black audiences at stifling, packed juke joints.
In Broonzy’s account of his formative years, he joined the U.S. Army in 1917 and fought in France during World War I. In the various versions of these events he presented in writings and interviews, Broonzy described the often degrading, humiliating experience faced by black soldiers who were subjected to the most menial jobs and received harsh punishment for any perceived slight. These stories he told not only detail the conditions during war, but also what a black man in uniform had to endure once he returned home where he was often viewed as a threat because of the respect he would likely be accorded. Broonzy described his initial return from battle when he was met in the street by a former employer who told him not to be parading around in “Uncle Sam’s uniform.” When he pleaded that he had no other clothes, the old boss told Broonzy that he still owed money and the only thing he could have was some overalls to work in so he could pay off his debt. It was an episode Broonzy would revisit in stark detail in his song, “When Will I Get to Be Called a Man?”
The facts that he would have been 14 at the start of the war, and that no draft registration card exists for him like there does for his brother, lead Riesman to conclude Broonzy never joined the military despite his richly detailed stories, which were most likely fabricated from the accounts of returning veterans. Yet, the episodes he shared were brutally accurate as they relate to the harrowing experience of black soldiers during and after the war.
“He made a decision to use himself, his family and others in the world that he grew up in and came from in Jefferson County, Arkansas, as ways of conveying to primarily white audiences the story of the African American experience in this country, particularly in the first half of the 20th century,” Riesman told the Arkansas Times.
“He used his exceptional way with words both in songwriting and in other writings to speak out against racial injustice at a time when that was taking a significant professional risk for any musician and particularly an African American musician.”
In the mid-1920s, Broonzy joined the migration of hundreds of thousands of African Americans traveling north to Chicago for the possibility of a better life. He quickly realized that playing a guitar would get you more work than being a country fiddle player, making a transition that would see him become one of the most gifted and prolific session musicians in the robust Chicago music scene of the 1930s. As he would at many other points in his life, Broonzy made connections to influential people that could provide recording opportunities with a variety of musicians and ensembles, including Georgia Tom Dorsey, Jazz Gillum, Lil Green, State Street Boys, Washboard Sam and Memphis Nighthawks.
“I think what Big Bill did extraordinarily well is chart his own course, even before he began his 30-year recording career in the late 1920s. At no point was there anyone that was formally his manager or in a position to say, ‘I think you should go in this direction or play in this style,’ ” Riesman said. “He was able to identify the next musical trend, and he did so numerous times.”
The capacity Broonzy had for connecting with people from all walks of life in a very profound and simple way is evident throughout his life, whether in the blues circuit of depression-era Chicago or playing with folk artists like Pete Seeger at colleges and summer camps in the 1940s or in the final years of his life spreading the gospel of blues to foreign audiences and admirers throughout Europe.
When Riesman first got the idea to write a book on blues or folk music, he admits he was not very familiar with Broonzy, but the name kept popping up in his research. He soon discovered he had selected a beguiling, confounding subject.
“Studs Terkel said about Bill that he is telling the truth — his truth,” Riesman said. “That turned out to be a challenge I didn’t know I’d be faced with but was a central challenge for a would-be biographer.” As Riesman dug deeper into his initial research, he was puzzled by the incongruities in the life and timeline that Broonzy described and what historical records actually showed.
“Finally, I concluded, in the words of Winnie the Pooh, ‘The more I looked for it the more it wasn’t there,’ ” Riesman said.
The first clue to Broonzy’s origin was found in a box of old letters in Amsterdam. While digging into the exploits and relationships Broonzy had experienced in Europe, Riesman interviewed Pim van Isveldt, who was Broonzy’s Dutch girlfriend and the father of his only son.
“When Pim showed me an envelope containing a letter that Bill had sent to her, and the return address displayed in his handwriting the last name Wesley and a street address in North Little Rock, that was the first time I had come across any documentation that directly connected Bill with Arkansas,” Riesman said.
A few months later, Riesman traveled to Little Rock where he scoured the Arkansas History Commission for new leads. He was able to locate the obituary of Lannie Bradley Wesley, who Riesman had recently learned was Broonzy’s sister. A resourceful employee then suggested he attend the bible class held that evening at the church mentioned in the obituary. After asking a few people at the church about the family, he was soon handed a phone to speak with Broonzy’s grandniece, Rosie Tolbert.
“My first thought was he’s pulling my leg,” Tolbert told the Times. “When they called me from down at church and said ‘Rosie, there’s this guy down here and he’s writing a book about your uncle,’ I said, ‘Yeah right.’ ”
It didn’t take Riesman long to convince Tolbert and her sister Jo Ann Jackson that he was sincere in his efforts. The sisters would spend the next several years sharing their family history with Riesman, in particular, a key document dating back to the late 1800s chronicling the Bradley family births, marriages and deaths, which clearly shows Lee Conley Bradley born in Arkansas in 1903.
“We always knew he was born here,” Tolbert said. “I didn’t know why he did the Mississippi thing, but he did grow up near Scott, Ark., and it probably just popped into his mind to say Mississippi.”
Even though Tolbert and Jackson were young, they both have fond memories of the excitement that always surrounded their uncle’s visits to North Little Rock.
“When Uncle Bill came home it was really a treat,” Jackson said. “We’d party — I’d guess you would call it that. My grandmother would cook, Uncle Bill would play and we’d dance and have a good time.”
The way Tolbert and Jackson described their uncle reflects the sentiments of his friends, associates and acolytes, including Muddy Waters who once described Broonzy as “the nicest guy I ever met in my life.”
“He was the happiest person I think I’ve ever seen,” Tolbert said. “He was just always happy, and he loved kids.”
The success and notoriety Broonzy experienced in the latter part of his life as an ambassador bringing blues music and culture to international audiences was, in Riesman’s view, perhaps his most powerful and lasting contribution. From the very beginning, Broonzy told his new audience that the only people who can sing the real blues are those who come from the kinds of rural conditions with mules, cotton fields and the types of circumstances he describes in his songs.
“The more I look at interviews he gave and articles written about him, particularly those first experiences in foreign countries, the more struck I was and am now at how masterfully he took on that role from the very beginning,” Riesman said. “This was something there was no template for — he was not following in anybody’s footsteps. There’s no evidence as he was doing this that there was anything but a clear-sighted and resolute awareness of himself as someone who could do several things simultaneously and very well. Namely, he sets foot in England and he presents himself not just as a musician but as someone who could guide the listener to an understanding of the world the music came from — the world whose conditions produced the blues, and he’s quite eloquent on that subject.”
When Broonzy died from cancer in August of 1958, he was a very prominent figure, who rated an obituary in the New York Times, an article in Time, and a two-page spread and editorial in Ebony. Three years later, the first full LP compilation of Robert Johnson recordings was released to a rapturous response. What followed was a renewed appreciation and resurgence in blues music with many of the retired artists finding new touring and recording opportunities and even greater international acclaim.
While his stature in the pantheon of American blues and folk music might have declined over the years, Riesman sees a place for Big Bill Broonzy in the rich musical tradition of his home state.
“I think it would be wonderful if the state and people in the state and friends of the state could claim him as one of the many exceptional musicians to have come from Arkansas.”
Big Bill – The Master of Chicago Pre-War Acoustic Blues Guitar
Big Bill Broonzy (26 June 1898– 15 August 1958) was a respected American blues guitar player and singer. His profession started in the 1920s when he played nation blues to mainly black audiences. Through the ’30s and ’40s he effectively browsed a shift in style to a more city blues sound popular with white audiences. In the 1950s a go back to his conventional folk-blues roots made him among the leading figures of the emerging American acoustic blues music revival and a global star. His long and differed profession marks him as one of the key figures in the advancement of blues music in the 20th century.
Broonzy copyrighted more than 300 blues tunes throughout his life time, consisting of both adjustments of conventional folk tunes and initial blues tunes. As a blues author, he was distinct because his structures showed the lots of viewpoint of his rural-to-urban experiences.
Born William Lee Conley Broonzy, “Big Bill” was among Frank Broonzy and Mittie Belcher’s 17 kids. His birth website and date are challenged. The Mississippi Blues Commission mentions that while he declared birth in Bolivar County, Mississippi, Broonzy was really born in Lake Dick, Arkansas. Broonzy declared he was born in 1893 and numerous sources report that year, however after his death his twin sibling produced a birth certificate offering it as 1898, the presently accepted date. Right after his birth the household transferred to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where Bill invested his youth. He started playing music at an early age. At the age of 10 he made himself a fiddle from a stogie box and discovered the best ways to play spirituals and folk tunes from his uncle, Jerry Belcher. He and a buddy called Louis Carter, who played a homemade guitar, started carrying out at social and church functions. These early efficiencies consisted of dipping into “two-stages”: picnics where whites danced on one side of the phase and blacks on the other.
In 1915, 17-year-old Broonzy was wed and working his own land as a sharecropper. He had actually chosen to quit the fiddle and end up being a preacher. There is a story that he was used $50 and a brand-new violin if he would play 4 days at a regional place. Prior to he might react to the deal, his partner took the cash and invested it, so he needed to play. In 1916 his crop and stock were eliminated by dry spell. Broonzy went to work in your area up until he was prepared into the Army in 1917.  Broonzy served 2 years in Europe throughout the very first world war. After his discharge from the Army in 1919, Broonzy went back to Pine Bluff, Arkansas where he is reported to have actually been called a racial epithet and informed by a white guy he understood prior to the war that he had to “rush and get his soldier uniform off and place on some overalls.” He instantly left Pine Bluff and relocated to the Little Rock location however a year later on in 1920 moved north to Chicago searching for chance.
After getting here in Chicago, Broonzy made the changed to acoustic guitar. He discovered guitar from minstrel and medication reveal seasoned Papa Charlie Jackson, who started taping for Paramount Records in 1924.  Through the 1920s Broonzy worked a string of chores, consisting of Pullman porter, cook, foundry employee and custodian, to supplement his earnings, however his primary interest was music. He played routinely at lease celebrations and celebrations, progressively enhancing his guitar playing. Throughout this time he composed among his signature tunes, a solo guitar piece called “Saturday Night Rub”.
Thanks to his association with Jackson, Broonzy had the ability to get an audition with Paramount executive J. Mayo Williams. His preliminary test recordings, made with his pal John Thomas on vocals, were turned down, however Broonzy continued, and his 2nd shot, a couple of months later on, was more effective. His very first record, “Big Bill’s Blues” backed with “House Rent Stomp”, credited to “Big Bill and Thomps” (Paramount 12656), was launched in 1927. Although the recording was not popular, Paramount kept their brand-new skill and the next couple of years saw more releases by “Big Bill and Thomps”. The records continued to offer inadequately. Customers considered his style immature and acquired.
In 1930 Paramount for the very first time utilized Broonzy’s complete name on a recording, “Station Blues”– albeit misspelled as “Big Bill Broomsley”. Tape-record sales continued to be bad, and Broonzy was operating at a supermarket. Broonzy was gotten by Lester Melrose, who produced acts for different labels consisting of Champion and Gennett Records. He taped numerous sides which were launched in the spring of 1931 under the name “Big Bill Johnson”. In March 1932 he took a trip to New York City and started taping for the American Record Corporation on their line of more economical labels: (Melotone, Perfect Records, et al.). These recordings offered much better and Broonzy started to end up being much better understood. Back in Chicago he was working frequently in South Side clubs, as well as visited with Memphis Minnie.
In 1934 Broonzy transferred to Bluebird Records and started tape-recording with pianist Bob “Black Bob” Call. His fortunes quickly enhanced. With Call his music was progressing to a more powerful R&B noise, and his singing sounded more guaranteed and individual. In 1937, he started having fun with pianist Josh Althiemer, recording and carrying out utilizing a little crucial group, consisting of “traps” (drums) and Double bass in addition to several tune instruments (horns and/or harmonica). In March 1938 he started tape-recording for Vocalion Records. Broonzy’s track record grew and in 1938 he was asked to substitute the just recently deceased Robert Johnson at the John H. Hammond-produced From Spirituals to Swing performance at Carnegie Hall. He likewise appeared in the 1939 performance at the very same location. His success led him in this exact same year to a bit part in Swingin’ the Dream, Gilbert Seldes’s jazz adjustment of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, embeded in 1890 New Orleans and including, to name a few, Louis Armstrong as Bottom and Maxine Sullivan as Titania, with the Benny Goodman sextet.
Broonzy’s own documented output through the 1930s just partly shows his significance to the Chicago blues scene. His half-brother, Washboard Sam, and friends, Jazz Gillum, and Tampa Red, likewise tape-recorded for Bluebird. Broonzy was credited as author on a number of their most popular recordings of that time. He supposedly played guitar on the majority of Washboard Sam’s tracks. Due to his special plans with his own record label, Broonzy was constantly mindful to have his name just appear on these artists’ records as “author”.