Big Bill Broonzy (1893-1958), Blues Legend

As one of the most talented, prolific, and most comercially succesful members of the early generation of blues artists, Big Bill Broonzy's influence on the blues and its later descendants cannot be overstated. The composer of blues classics such as "Key to the Highway," "Hey, Hey," "This Train Is Bound For Glory," and "All by Myself," Broonzy ranks with B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson in terms of influence.

Born William Lee Conley Broonzy in Scott, Mississippi on June 26, 1893, one of 17 children of two former slaves, Broonzy grew up on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi Delta where he learned to play the violin on a homemade instrument and was performing at social functions and church gatherings by age 10. After serving in the army during World War I, Broonzy moved to Chicago in 1920, where he switched to guitar under the tutilege of his mentor, Papa Charlie Jackson, and embarked on a career as a blues and hokum performer.

Getting his start playing in clubs, Broonzy soon found himself in demand as a backup musician, playing on recordings by the likes of such pioneers of the Chicago Blues sound as Memphis Slim, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Big Maceo. Broonzy began his own recording career with Paramount in 1927, and later recorded for a host of other labels, including Columbia, OKeh, and Bluebird.

Finding great sucess in the "race records" market of the 1930s, Broonzy made his big breakthrough with white audiences when he played a famous concert at New York's Carnegie Hall as part of John Hammond's revolutionary Sprirtuals to Swing Series. Hammond had originally sought Robert Johnson for the event, but upon learning that Johnson had died the year before, tabbed Broonzy. Big Bill made the most of his big day, and his performance launched a new phase in his career as he became one of the first blues artists to win acclaim and followers among white audiences.

As the 40s progressed, Broonzy continued to record prolifically, to increasing fame and reputation. But he had become increasingly dissatisfied with the slow pace of social change in America, especially with regards to race relations, and this dissatisfaction began to appear in his music, much to the dismay of the record companies he recorded for. The issue came to a head in 1947, when every record company Broonzy approached refused to record his social protest ballad "Black, Brown, and White," (a song Broonzy called "the best, most important song I ever wrote"), and Broonzy found his music increasingly unwelcomed by the record industry.

Broonzy finally found the solution when a 1951 tour of Europe proved wildly successful. European record companies were glad to record his protest music and Broonzy spent most of the remainder of his career in France, England, and other European nations. At the time he died of lung cancer in 1958, Broonzy was very likely the most famous blues musician in the world.

As one of the most prolific blues songwriters in the history of the music, Broonzy may well be the most covered blues artist of all time. He was also a supremely talented guitarist. How good was Big Bill? Find a recording of Broonzy playing "Hey, Hey." Yes, my friend, that is indeed only one guitar playing. The version by Eric Clapton on "Unplugged" is but a pale imitation.

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