Bill Broonzy

Bill Broonzy

American blues singer
Date of Birth: 26.06.1893
Country: USA

Biography of Big Bill Broonzy

Bill Broonzy, an American blues singer, was born into a peasant family. As a teenager, he earned money by playing at weddings, dances, and picnics. In his youth, Broonzy worked as a farmhand, and it was during this time that he developed his unmistakable, powerful voice with a remarkable range and flexibility while herding mules. As a child, he made his own violin and began learning to play it under the guidance of his uncle. He worked as a preacher for a while but later dedicated himself to secular life as a blues performer.

After serving in the army during World War I, Broonzy moved to Chicago, where he learned to play the guitar under the guidance of Papa Charlie Jackson. Although Broonzy started playing the guitar quite late, he quickly reached a level of significant mastery. His early recordings from the late 1920s already showcased his fluid and confident playing style within the realms of both blues and ragtime. While his voice maintained the rural characteristics typical of a country performer with clear diction, his guitar playing was virtuosic and assured, reflecting a more urban influence.

Thematically, Broonzy's blues were focused on African Americans who, like himself, had recently migrated to the industrial North of the United States but still maintained family and cultural ties to the southern states. In this regard, Broonzy's music exemplifies the movement of blues from being a folk music of certain regions in the South to becoming part of the national entertainment industry. It is believed that in the 1930s, Broonzy's records had the highest sales among blues musicians.

He also recorded extensively as an accompanist, particularly with his half-brother, Washboard Sam. Record companies sometimes employed Broonzy to discover new talents. He was highly esteemed as an accompanist, and by 1942, he had recorded hundreds of compositions in this capacity, in addition to over two hundred solo recordings and numerous unreleased recordings. As his solo recordings generally reflected changes in musical tastes, by the mid-1930s, he almost always recorded with a small group consisting of piano, rhythm section, and often brass or woodwind instruments, although the rich, sustained sound of his guitar always remained prominent.

Despite his unquestionable stardom (before 1949, his records, released for African American listeners, did not need to mention his full name – "Big Bill" was sufficient), the dubious financial benefits of the recording industry did not allow him to fully dedicate himself to music until his old age.

After World War II, Broonzy somewhat lost popularity among African American listeners, but by that time, he had effectively shifted his focus to a wealthier white audience composed of jazz enthusiasts and supporters of the emerging folk revival movement. In 1938 and 1939, he participated in the famous "From Spirituals to Swing" concerts at Carnegie Hall, organized by John Hammond Sr. and dedicated to African American musical culture. In 1947, Broonzy made recordings with an electric guitar accompanied by bass guitar and drums, thus being one of the first blues musicians to work in the format of electric Chicago blues. However, he later returned to acoustic folk sound and toured Europe in 1951 in this capacity.

In 1955, his captivating autobiography, filled with entertaining stories, was published. The book was compiled based on his letters by Yannick Bruynoghe. It should be noted that Broonzy only learned to write in 1950 from students at Iowa State University, where he worked as a janitor at the time.

Two years later, he was diagnosed with throat and lung cancer. Despite severe pain, Broonzy continued to perform as long as he could walk. It is also known that he actively helped the young Muddy Waters when he arrived in Chicago from Mississippi and took his first steps in the local music scene. Later, as a tribute to his older comrade, Waters recorded an entire album of Big Bill Broonzy songs titled "Muddy Waters Sings Big Bill Broonzy".

In 1980, Big Bill Broonzy was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame.

In his life, Broonzy was a proud and determined man. He was one of the central figures in the history of blues, both during its era as the music of African Americans and when the genre became known and beloved worldwide.