August 14, 1958 – Big Bill Broonzy, (real name Lee Conly Bradley) was born either on June 26th 1893 or 1898 or even 1903 . Like with any of the true blues musician of the early days, there is a lot of unproven claims about names, dates of birth and even location of births. Big Bill’s story was no different.
Despite years of research, the details of William Lee Conley Broonzy’s birth date 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, definitive research undertaken by Bob Reisman has changed the picture.
Bill often regaled audiences with tales of his birth on 26 June 1893 and that of his twin sister Laney and of his father’s response to being told he had twins to care for. He claimed to have served in the US Army in France from 1918 – 1919 and to have been invited by a record company to travel to the Delta following a major flood in 1927: Turns out, that a good deal of this was fiction at worst and faction at best.
Robert Reisman’s impeccable research suggests a birth date for Bill of 26th June 1903 (and in Jefferson County, Arkansas, not Scott Mississippi as previously suggested). Laney was not a twin at all but four years older than Bill. (She was born in 1898).
Bill spoke and sang about experiences in the US army and of his return from France to Arkansas/Mississippi. It turns out though, that the reported army experience was Bill’s factional description of an amalgam of the stories told by black soldiers returning from overseas. A trip Bill claimed to have made to Mississippi in 1927 to the flooding was similarly untrue, but was a factional account into which Bill inserted himself. Broonzy is/was not even his real name. He was born into the world with the name Lee Conly (note spelling) Bradley; and so it goes on.
Bill’s father Frank Broonzy (Bradley) 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. Bob Reisman suggests that there is little evidence that Jerry Belcher existed.
In Arkansas, the young Bill (Lee) 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 (Lee) worked as an itinerant preacher in and around Pine Bluff worked in clubs around Little Rock. It is not known why he changed his name. He joined the US Army in 1918 and upon his return into civil life in 1920 he moved to Chicago where he worked in the factories for a few years.
In 1924 he met Papa Charlie Jackson, a New Orleans’ pioneer blues recording artist who took Bill under his wing, and taught him guitar, which he subsequently used to accompany many blues singers, both in live performance and on record.
Bill made his first recordings in 1927 (just named Big Bill) 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).
In 1930, he joined the Hokum Boys billing themselves as “the Famous Hokum Boys” and Big Bill penned his first great blues original, “I Can’t Be Satisfied”.
Over the years, Big Bill became an accomplished performer in his own right. Through the 1930s he was a significant mover in founding the small group blues (singer, guitar, piano, bass drums) sound that typified Chicago blues.
On 23 December, 1938, Big Bill 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 program 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 as noted above, by late 1938 Bill was established as a session man and band leader, and as a solo performer in Chicago. Within weeks of the 1938 concert Bill was recording with small groups in a studio in the windy city.
In the 1938 program, 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 organized 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.
In the 1940s Big Bill starts recording most of his life’s massive library with new masterpieces: Make my Get Away, Looking for My Baby, My Mellow Man, Knockin’ Myself Out, Wee Wee Blues. Including sessions in which he accompanied others he was in the studio for 41 sessions. He went on to become one of the most influential blues men of the era, especially in the UK and Europe and he copyrighted more than 300 songs during his lifetime, including both adaptations of traditional folk songs and original blues songs. His songs include “Midnight Special”, “C.C. Rider”, “New Shake ‘Em on Down”, “Night Time Is the Right Time No. 2”, “All By Myself”, “Rockin’ Chair Blues”, “Key to the Highway”, “Station Blues”, Hey Hey, and so many more.
In the early 1950’s a double CD, featuring live performances by Big Bill Broonzy, was released as a box set by Ace records in the UK and Munich Records in the USA. “Big Bill Broonzy: Amsterdam Live Concerts 1953” contains 25 songs – and very typical storytelling between the songs – and is a delight for fans and non-fans alike. The CDs come with extensive liner notes about Broonzy’s legacy and his little-known second life as a European as well as dozens of previously unseen photos.
After an afternoon performance in Holland in 1953, Broonzy was taken to a pub in Old Amsterdam. When he was asked to sing a few more songs, to the surprise of his Dutch friends, he refused, explaining that he wBill and Michaelas afraid he’d be arrested for being black. After he had been reassured that there was no reason to fear such an event in the Netherlands, Bill played for over an hour.
Bill’s experience of Europe, particularly in the the Netherlands, was very different to that he had experienced in the USA. Jim Crow racism was non-existent and Bill felt very much at home.
In a lesser known aspect of his life, he met and fell in love with a Dutch girl, Pim van Isveldt. Together they had a child named Michael, who is 62 now and still lives in Amsterdam.
He finished recording his final album ‘His Story’ in July of 1957, a day before he had an operation for throat and lung cancer. As a blues composer, he was unique in that his compositions reflected the many vantage points of his rural-to-urban experiences. He left a recorded legacy which, in sheer size and depth, well exceeds that of any blues artist born in that era. A documentory, Big Bill Broonzy: The Man Who Brought The Blues To Britain aired Sunday 1st December 2013.
Big Bill died after a two year battle with cancer. He was 56.