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Big Bill Broonzy

Big Bill Broonzy was born William Lee Conley Broonzy in the tiny town of Scott, Mississippi, just across the river from Arkansas. During his childhood, Broonzy's family -- itinerant sharecroppers and the descendants of ex-slaves -- moved to Pine Bluff to work the fields there. Broonzy learned to play a cigar box fiddle from his uncle, and as a teenager, he played violin in local churches, at community dances, and in a country string band. During World War I, Broonzy enlisted in the U.S. Army, and in 1920 he moved to Chicago and worked in the factories for several years. In 1924 he met Papa Charlie Jackson, a New Orleans native and pioneer blues recording artist for Paramount. Jackson took Broonzy under his wing, taught him guitar, and used him as an accompanist. Broonzy's entire first session at Paramount in 1926 was rejected, but he returned in November 1927 and succeeded in getting his first record, House Rent Stomp, onto Paramount wax. As one of his early records came out with the garbled moniker of Big Bill Broomsley, he decided to shorten his recording name to Big Bill, and this served as his handle on records until after the second World War. Among aliases used for Big Bill on his early releases were Big Bill Johnson, Sammy Sampson, and Slim Hunter.

Broonzy's earliest records do not demonstrate real promise, but this would soon change. In 1930, the Hokum Boys broke up, and Georgia Tom Dorsey decided to keep the act going by bringing in Big Bill and guitarist Frank Brasswell to replace Tampa Red, billing themselves as "the Famous Hokum Boys." With Georgia Tom and Brasswell, Broonzy hit his stride and penned his first great blues original, "I Can't Be Satisfied." This was a hit and helped make his name with record companies. Although only half-a-dozen blues artists made any records during 1932, the worst year in the history of the record business, one of them was Big Bill, who made 20 issued sides that year.

Through Georgia Tom and Tampa Red, Big Bill met Memphis Minnie and toured as her second guitarist in the early '30s, but apparently did not record with her. When he did resume recording in March 1934 it was for Bluebird's newly established Chicago studio under the direction of Lester Melrose. Melrose liked Broonzy's style, and before long, Big Bill would begin working as Melrose's unofficial second-in-command, auditioning artists, matching numbers to performers, booking sessions, and providing backup support to other musicians. He played on literally hundreds of records for Bluebird in the late '30s and into the '40s, including those made by his half-brother, Washboard Sam, Peter Chatman (aka Memphis Slim), John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson, and others. With Melrose, Broonzy helped develop the "Bluebird beat," connoting a type of popular blues record that incorporated trap drums and upright string bass. This was the precursor of the "Maxwell Street sound" or "postwar Chicago blues," and helped to redefine the music in a format that would prove popular in the cities. Ironically, while Broonzy was doing all this work for Melrose at Bluebird, his own recordings as singer were primarily made for ARC, and later Columbia's subsidiary Okeh. This was his greatest period, and during this time Broonzy wrote and recorded such songs as "Key to the Highway," "W.P.A. Blues," "All by Myself," and "Unemployment Stomp." For other artists, Broonzy wrote songs such as "Diggin' My Potatoes." All told, Big Bill Broonzy had a hand in creating more than 100 original songs.

When promoter John Hammond sought a traditional blues singer to perform at one of his Spirituals to Swing concerts held at Carnegie Hall in New York City, he was looking for Robert Johnson to foot the bill. Hammond learned that Johnson had recently died, and as a result, Big Bill got the nod to appear at Carnegie Hall on February 5, 1939. This appearance was very well received, and earned Broonzy a role in George Seldes' 1939 film Swingin' the Dream alongside Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman. In the early '40s, Big Bill appeared at the Café Society, the Village Vanguard, and the Apollo Theater, in addition to touring with Lil Greenwood, all of which kept Big Bill busy during the AFM recording ban. By the mid- to late '40s, the operation in Chicago with Melrose had finally begun to wind down, just as electric blues started to heat up. Big Bill continued to record for labels ranging from majors Columbia and Mercury to fly-by-nights such as Hub and RPM. In 1949, Broonzy decided to take some time off from music, and got a job working as a janitor at the Iowa State University of Science & Technology in Ames.

In 1951 Broonzy was sought out by DJ and writer Studs Terkel and appeared in the latter's concert series I Come for to Sing. Suddenly, Broonzy started to get a lot of press attention, and by September of that year, he was in Paris recording for French Vogue. On this occasion Broonzy was finally able to wax his tune "Black, Brown and White," a song about race relations that had been in his book for years, but every record company he had ever sung it for had turned it down. In Europe, Broonzy proved incredibly popular, more so than at any time in the United States. Two separate documentary films were made on his life, in France and Belgium, respectively, and from 1951 until ill health finally put him out of the running in the fall of 1957, Broonzy nearly doubled his own 1927-1949 output in terms of new recordings.

Broonzy updated his act by adding traditional folk songs to his set, along the lines of what Josh White and Leadbelly had done in then-recent times. He took a tremendous amount of flak for doing so, as blues purists condemned Broonzy for turning his back on traditional blues style in order to concoct shows that were appealing to white tastes. But this misses the point of his whole life's work: Broonzy was always about popularizing blues, and he was the main pioneer in the entrepreneurial spirit as it applies to the field. His songwriting, producing, and work as a go-between with Lester Melrose is exactly the sort of thing that Willie Dixon would do with Chess in the '50s. This was the part of his career that Broonzy himself valued most highly, and his latter-day fame and popularity were a just reward for a life spent working so hard on behalf of his given discipline and fellow musicians. It would be a short reward, though; just about the time the autobiography he had written with Yannick Bruynoghe, Big Bill Blues, appeared in 1955, he learned he had throat cancer. Big Bill Broonzy died at age 65 in August, 1958, and left a recorded legacy which, in sheer size and depth, well exceeds that of any blues artist born on his side of the year 1900. ~ Uncle Dave Lewis
full bio

Selected Discography

x

Track List: War & Postwar Years 3: 1940-1951

Disc 1

1. Medicine Man Blues

2. Looking Up At Down

3. Midnight Steppers

4. Lone Wolf Blues

5. Hit The Right Lick

6. You Better Cut That Out

7. I Wonder What's Wrong With Me

8. Bed Time Blues

9. Merry Go Round Blues

10. Serenade Blues

11. Lonesome Road Blues

12. Getting Older Every Day

13. Getting Older Every Day

14. That Number Of Mine

15. My Gal Is Gone

16. I'll Never Dream Again

17. Rockin' Chair Blues

18. Shine On, Shine On

19. Green Grass Blues

20. My Little Flower

21. Sweet Honey Bee

22. When I Been Drinking

23. Key To The Highway

24. Double Trouble

25. Going Back To My Plow

Disc 2

1. I'm Having So Much Trouble

2. Wee Wee Hours

3. Conversation With The Blues

4. All By Myself

5. Keep Your Hand On Your Heart

6. Why Should I Spend My Money

7. What's Wrong With Me

8. I Feel So Good

9. In The Army Now

10. Bad Acting Woman

11. Night Watchman Blues

12. She's Gone With The Wind

13. I'm Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town

14. Tell Me Baby

15. Hard Hearted Woman

16. I'm Woke Up Now

17. Please Believe Me

18. Why Did You Do That To Me

19. You Got To Play Your Hand

20. Just A Dream

21. Doing The Best I Can

22. Partnership Woman

23. Where The Blues Began

24. Humble Blues

25. Oh Baby

Disc 3

1. Cell No.13 Blues

2. When I Get To Thinkin'

3. Roll Dem Bones

4. You Got The Best Go

5. I Can Fix It

6. Old Man Blues

7. I Can't Write

8. What Can I Do

9. San Antonio Blues

10. Saturday Evening Blues

11. Martha Blues

12. Texas Tornado Blues

13. Big Bill's Boogie

14. Just Rocking

15. Shoo Blues

16. I Feel Like Crying

17. Stop Lying Woman

18. Rambling Bill

19. Summer Time Blues

20. Bad Luck Man

21. (I'm A) Wonderin' Man

22. I Love My Whiskey

23. You've Been Mistreating Me

24. I Stay Blue All The Time

25. Water Coast Blues

Disc 4

1. Five Feet Seven

2. I Wonder

3. Keep Your Hands Off Her

4. Mindin' My Own Business

5. Hey Hey

6. Stump Blues

7. Get Back

8. Willie Mae Blues

9. Walkin' The Lonesome Road

10. Mopper's Blues

11. I Know She Will

12. Hollerin' The Blues

13. Leavin' Day

14. South Bound Train

15. Tomorrow

16. You Changed

17. John Henry

18. Crawdad

19. Bill Bailey

20. Make My Get Away

21. Blue Tail Fly

22. Backwater Blues

23. In The Evenin'

24. Trouble In Mind

x

Track List: The Chronological Big Bill Broonzy: 1951

1. Blues In 1890

2. Big Bill Blues

3. Lonesome Road Blues

4. When Did You Leave Heaven

5. John Henry

7. Stump Blues

8. Five Foot Seven

9. Plough Hand Blues

10. Hey, Hey

11. Stump Blues

12. Get Back

13. Willie Mae

14. Walkin' The Lonesome Road

15. Mopper's Blues

16. I Know She Will

17. Hollerin' The Blues

18. Leavin' Day

19. Southbound Train

20. Tomorrow

21. You Changed

22. John Henry

23. Crawdad

x

Track List: The Chronological 1949-1951

1. I Love My Whiskey

2. You've Been Mistreating Me

3. I Stay Blue All The Time

4. Water Coast Blues

5. Five Feet Seven

6. I Wonder

7. Keep Your Hands Off Her

9. House Rent Stomp

10. In The Evening

11. The Moppin' Blues

12. Hey Hey Baby

13. Willie Mae Blues

14. Black, Brown And White

17. Feelin' Lowdown

18. What I Used To Do

19. Make My Getaway

20. Hollerin' And Cryin' The Blues

x

Track List: Trouble In Mind

1. Hey, Hey Baby

2. Frankie And Johnny

3. Trouble In Mind

4. Joe Turner, No. 2 (Blues Of 1890)

5. Mule-Ridin' Blues

6. When Will I Get To Be Called A Man?

7. Poor Bill Blues

8. Key To The Highway

9. Plough-Hand Blues

10. Digging My Potatoes

11. When Things Go Wrong (It Hurts Me Too)

12. C.C. Rider

13. Saturday Evening Blues

14. Shuffle Rag

15. Southbound Train

16. Hush, Somebody's Calling Me

17. Louise

18. Black, Brown And White (Intro)

19. Black, Brown And White

20. Willie Mae Blues

21. This Train (Intro)

22. This Train (Bound For Glory)

23. In The Evening When The Sun Goes Down (Intro)

24. In The Evening When The Sun Goes Down

x

Track List: Topaz Blues

1. Too Too Train Blues

2. Mistreatin' Mama Blues

3. Bull Cow Blues

4. Long Tall Mama

5. I'll Be Back Home Again

6. Keep Your Hands Off Her

7. Big Bill Blues

8. I'm A Southern Man

9. Southern Flood Blues

10. You Do Me Any Old Way

11. New Shake 'Em On Down

12. Let Me Dig It

13. Baby I Done Got Wise

14. Just A Dream

15. Just Got To Hold You Tight

16. Oh Yes

17. Looking Up At Down

18. You Better Cut That Out

19. Lonesome Road Blues

20. When I Had Been Drinking

21. All By Myself

22. Night Watchman Blues

23. Tell Me Baby

24. I'm Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of The Town

x

Track List: The Young Big Bill Broonzy

1. Long Tall Mama

2. Mississippi River Blues

3. Saturday Night Rub

4. How You Want It Done?

5. Stove Pipe Stomp

6. Hokum Stomp

7. I Can't Be Satisfied

8. Brownskin Shuffle

9. Eagle Ridin' Papa

10. Starvation Blues

11. Hip Shakin' Strut

12. Good Liquor Gonna Carry Me Down

13. Skoodle Do Do

14. Banker's Blues

x

Track List: The Bill Broonzy Story

Disc 1

1. Key To The Highway

2. Dialogue

3. Mindin' My Own Business

4. Dialogue

5. Saturday Evening Blues

6. Dialogue

7. Southbound Train

8. Dialogue

9. Tell Me What Kind Of Man Jesus Was (Ananias)

10. Dialogue

11. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

12. Dialogue

13. Joe Turner Blues (Vocal)

14. Dialogue

15. Joe Turner Blues (Instrumental)

16. Dialogue

17. Plow Hand Blues

18. Dialogue

19. Goin' Down The Road Feelin' Bad

20. Dialogue

21. Makin' My Getaway

Disc 3

1. Dialogue

2. Worried Life Blues

3. Dialogue

4. Trouble In Mind

5. Dialogue

6. Take This Hammer

7. Dialogue

8. The Glory Of Love

9. Dialogue

10. Louise Blues

11. Dialogue

12. Willie Mae Blues

13. Dialogue

14. Alberta

15. Old Folks Home (Swanee River)

16. Dialogue

17. Crawdad Song

18. Dialogue

19. John Henry

20. Dialogue

21. Just A Dream (On My Mind)

22. Dialogue

23. Frankie And Johnny

24. Dialogue

25. Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home

26. Dialogue

27. Hollerin' The Blues

x

Track List: Big Bill Broonzy Sings Folk Songs

1. Backwater Blues

2. This Train

3. I Don't Want No Woman (To Try To Be My Boss)

4. Martha

5. Tell Me Who

6. Bill Bailey

7. Alberta

8. Goin' Down This Road

9. Tell Me What Kind Of Man Jesus Is

10. John Henry

11. Glory Of Love

Comments

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This guy is amazing, hey hey is my favorite song.
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I always wondered where Clutch got this song from...now I know
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yes JJ
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why are all of the interesting profiles private
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rules yeah pain
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mooyoo.77
BIG BILL, STILL THE BEST!!!!
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G
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I just found this genre because of a four string homemade guitar on YouTube, what a good productive YouTube video string, I am gonna go learn to play this on my bass
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wilbudge
Yes, thank you sir.
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Big Bill got some mighty big blues shoes to fill. Seminal artist and composer.
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if it weren't for this music...you wouldn't have music
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mooyoo.77
greatest self-taught BLUESMAN ever, love that self-taught guitar
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sdimauro28
guess i'm just a white boy lost in the blues. thank you
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This is one of the many Blues Artist music I was exposed to as a child in the late 1960's, and the tunes are still fresh in my memory today, and thank you Pandora I believed I would never hear Big Bill again, timeless classic.
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csprecher2
Plenty of folks have covered this song but lord have mercy, Bill's is mighty sweet. Big Bill, one of my heroes.
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Incredible.
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Big Bill was a HUGE influence on Ray Davies. Thank you, Bill.
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stanmans
never heard a blue's song I didn't like.
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Mmmmmhmmmm.. . . E x c e l l e n t , as usual.
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Amazing,all there is to say..

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