Personalities | Big Bill Broonzy | Thirties | Jazz & Blues

The parents of William Lee Conley Broonzy were born into slavery. He was born in June 1893 in Scott, Mississippi, one of 17 children. Raised on a farm in Arkansas, Broonzy’s first musical instrument was a home-made violin, which he played at church and social functions. In the early teens he was an itinerant preacher, while also working as a country fiddler. 

He served in the US Army from 1918–19, and shortly after his discharge moved to Chicago. At first he worked as a baggage handler, performing music on a casual basis; it was in Chicago that he first learned to play the guitar.

The Early Recordings

Broonzy worked with Papa Charlie Jackson in 1924 and soon became an accompanist in demand. He made his recording debut for Paramount in 1927 and by 1930 was recording for Gennett/Champion and Perfect/Banner under a variety of pseudonyms, such as Sammy Sampson and Big Bill Johnson. In 1931, he recorded for Paramount and the resulting tracks were issued by ‘Big Bill Broomsley’. By this time, Big Bill Broonzy was a professional entertainer.

Broonzy worked theatres and taverns in Chicago and northern Indiana during this period and toured in a show with Memphis Minnie. Broonzy did not record during 1933 and when he resumed in 1934, for ARC and Bluebird, the records were issued simply as Big Bill. This began a period of prolific recording activity for Broonzy. From 1936, he recorded exclusively for ARC (later Columbia), an arrangement that lasted until the end of 1947. By 1937, performance opportunities had slowed and Broonzy was living on his Arkansas farm, commuting to Chicago three or four times a year to make records.

Spirituals To Swing

In 1938 Broonzy was part of the cast for the John Hammond production ‘Spirituals To Swing’, a concert held at Carnegie Hall in New York City. He made the most of the opportunity and renewed his career as an entertainer, shortly afterwards appearing at major clubs in New York as well as Chicago. He appeared in the movie Swingin’ The Dream in 1939, toured with Lil Green during 1941–42 and had theatre dates in New York and Los Angeles in the early 1940s. He released records on a regular basis and by the end of his career he had written and recorded hundreds of songs.

European Tours

For some time, Broonzy’s record dates had alternated between the spare accompaniment of piano and bass, and larger ensembles often featuring two horns. As time wore on, the country aspects of his recording sessions were given scant attention. When he signed with Mercury in 1949, his recording began to take on the flavour of the emerging R&B sound. While he continued to record he was, for a time, employed as a janitor at Iowa State University, but things changed markedly when he made his first overseas tour. He toured England, France and Germany as a solo artist during September and October 1951; he made recordings in each country...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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