A giant of a man in every respect, Big Bill Broonzy remains one of the most important and influential figures in blues history, who bridged the gap between urban and rural styles. In turn he went on to become an elder statesman and ambassador who did more than any other musician to make the roots of blues music accessible to a new and appreciative white audience.
Unlike most of his musical peers, Broonzy was able to adapt to changing musical trends and reinvent himself when needed. Likewise, he was equally creative with his own performing persona and inconsistencies abound in understanding much of his early life. Combining fact and fiction, Broonzy viewed himself as a representative figure of the African American experience, and therefore strict accuracy came second to communicating the realities of the bigger picture.
In fact, Broonzy wasn’t even his real name. He was born into the world Lee Conley Bradley on 26th June 1903, in Jefferson County, Arkansas. Remarkably, he was one of 17 siblings whose parents had been born into slavery. Supposedly finding his singing voice whilst following a mule, he subsequently learned how to play the fiddle on a home-made instrument and by the age of 10 was performing in church. Although Broonzy often claimed that he served in the US army from 1918-1919, this has been disproven as a fictitious amalgam of the tales he heard from black soldiers returning from the great war. Such poetic license shows how he wanted his perceived character to convey the whole story of his people.
Come the early 1920s and Broonzy had moved north to Chicago, where as a fiddle player he played occasional gigs with Papa Charlie Jackson, one of the earliest of the male blues recording stars who also became his first guitar teacher. His playing rapidly improved as he became influenced by other contemporaries, including Blind Blake and Blind Lemon Jefferson, whilst continuing to draw inspiration from the different styles of roots music that he grew up with (i.e. Delta blues, ragtime, gospel, hokum, work songs and other songster tunes). Ultimately Broonzy would combine all these influences into his own style of the blues, which foreshadowed the classic post-war Chicago sound.
By the time he began his recording career with Paramount in 1927, Broonzy had become an incredibly proficient guitarist and singer. These seminal recordings are taken from his first creative wave during the late 1920s/early 1930s when he cut many timeless blues sides such as his self-titled ‘Big Bill Blues’, as well as classic upbeat rag-infused numbers including ‘Saturday Night Rub’ and ‘Brownskin Shuffle’. With a singular guitar style renowned for its strong pulsating bass and melodic lead lines, his dextrous playing is complemented by effortless and pure-sounding vocals. This seamless combination is what sets Broonzy apart from other bluesmen of the day and why he has been cited as a primary influence on such guitar luminaries as Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Jerry Garcia and Pete Townsend to name but a few.
During the mid-1930s Broonzy became a key figure in establishing the distinctive small ensemble rhythm and blues sound, playing with amongst others, John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson, Lonnie Johnson, Tampa Red, Washboard Sam, Jazz Gillum and the queen of the Delta blues herself, Memphis Minnie. In turn he became the best-selling black male blues singer of the immediate pre-war era and was a central figure in paving the way for both the electrified Chicago blues and rock 'n' roll explosion to come.
The 23rd of December 1938 was a game-changing moment in Broonzy’s career when he was one of the principal solo performers in the first "From Spirituals to Swing" concert held at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Remarkably, Broonzy was a stand-in for Robert Johnson who had been murdered in Mississippi in August that year. He was an immediate success with the white East Coast audience who appreciated the combination of his rural roots and evident sophistication along with the clarity of his vocal style, which lacked the rough edges typically associated with rural bluesmen.
In 1951, Broonzy became the first black bluesman to travel to Europe to perform. He was an instant sensation and effectively created a highly lucrative audience for other American blues artists, who found that fans overseas were often more appreciative than those at home. Broonzy continued to record and tour prolifically during the 1950s until his death from throat cancer in 1958.