Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Big Bill Broonzy

Big Bill Broonzy Biography

Despite years of research, the details of William Lee Conley Broonzy's birth remain problematic. He may have been born on 26 June 1893 - the date of birth he often gave - or according to Bill's twin sister Laney, it may have been in 1898. Laney claimed to have documents to prove that. However recent research using the 1930 census suggests that he was actually born in 1901 (see below). The place of his birth was probably Scott, Mississippi, but .......

Bill's father Frank Broonzy and his mother, Mittie Belcher had both been born into slavery and Bill was one of seventeen children. His first instrument was a violin which he learned to play with some tuition from his uncle, his mother's brother, Jerry Belcher.

The family moved from Mississippi to Pine Bluff, Arkansas where young Bill worked as a violinist in local churches at the same time as working as a farm hand. He also worked as a country fiddler and local parties and picnics around Scott Mississippi. Between 1912 and 1917, Bill worked as an itinerant preacher in and around Pine Bluff. From 1918 to 1919 Broonzy served in the US army.

Later, returning to Arkansas, he worked in clubs around Little Rock. In about 1924, Big Bill moved to Chicago Illinois, where as a fiddle player he played occasional gigs with Papa Charlie Jackson. During this time he learned to play guitar and subsequently accompanied many blues singers, both in live performance and on record. Bill made his first recordings in 1927 and the 1930 census records him as living in Chicago and (working as a labourer in a foundry) and his name was recorded as 'Willie Lee Broonsey' aged 28. He was living with his wife Annie (25) and his son Ellis (6).

Big Bill became an accomplished performer in his own right, and, on 23 December, 1938, was one of the principal solo performers in the first "From Spirituals to Swing" concert held at the Carnegie Hall in New York City. In the programme for that performance, Broonzy was identified in the programme only as "Big Bill" (he did not become known as Big Bill Broonzy until much later in his career) and as Willie Broonzy. He was described as:

"...the best-selling blues singer on Vocalion's 'race' records, which is the musical trade designation for American Negro music that is so good that only the Negro people can be expected to buy it."

The programme recorded that the Carnegie Hall concert "will be his first appearance before a white audience".

Big Bill was a stand-in for Robert Johnson, who had been murdered in Mississippi in August that year. Hammond heard about Johnson's death just a week before the concert was due to take place. According to John Sebastian (1939) Big Bill bought a new pair of shoes and travelled to New York by bus for the concert. Where he travelled from is, however, left dangling. The inference of the text is that it was from Arkansas, but by by late 1938 Bill was established as a session man and as a solo performer in Chicago and within weeks of the 1938 concert Bill was recording with small groups in a studio in the windy city.

In the 1938 programme, Big Bill performed (accompanied by boogie pianist Albert Ammons) "It Was Just a Dream" which had the audience rocking with laughter at the lines,

"Dreamed I was in the White House, sittin' in the president's chair.
I dreamed he's shaking my hand, said "Bill, I'm glad you're here".
But that was just a dream. What a dream I had on my mind.
And when I woke up, not a chair could I find"

According to Harry "Sweets" Edison, a Trumpeter with the Count Basie Orchestra, also in the concert, Big Bill was so overwhelmed by the audience response that he failed to move back stage as the curtain came down and got caught in front of it. Later, according to Edison) perhaps not realising he had to do a number in the second half of the concert,he was found to have left the Carnegie Hall and caught a bus home.

Regardless of the truth of that story, when a second concert was organised in 1939, on Christmas Eve, Bill was there again. This time, again with Albert Ammons, he performed two numbers: Done Got Wise, and Louise, Louise

The guitar on the left is a Martin model 00028, a beautiful instrument. Bill played one of these from the 1950s to his death on 15th August 1958.

No comments: