The Session Work of Big Bill Broonzy
Big Bill Broonzy is remembered best for his long and successful solo career. But when he wasn’t touring himself, he was the first-choice studio guitarist. His distinctive guitar work helped define the Chicago sound. From the barrelhouse piano of Charlie Spand to the harmonica of Jazz Gillum. But nobody more than Washboard Sam. You can hear Bill Broonzy on almost every single Washboard Sam track out there—from his early acoustic hokum to later amplified swing.
And then there are Broonzy’s recordings with Lil Green. Lil was a Mississippi-born songwriter with a sinuous voice. Together, Bill and Lil recorded her song Romance in the Dark—now considered a Jazz standard.
But of all his background work, I’ve got a clear favorite. It’s a popular tune. You may know it as done by Benny Goodman with Peggy Lee, or from the lusty animated rendition in the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit. This is Big Bill Broonzy on guitar and Lil Green on vocals with the 1941 original, “Why Don’t You Do Right.”[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/115634087" width="100%" height="166" iframe="true" /]
William Lee Conley Bradley, known as Big Bill Broonzy, was born in Arkansas on June 26, 1903, though the date’s been reported as 1893 and 1898. Big Bill was a guitarist, singer, songwriter and storyteller. His career spanned the 1920’s heyday of blues recording, all the way through the 50’s folk-blues revival.
As Bob Riesman writes in his seminal biography of Broonzy “Big Bill was a tremendous storyteller, and his greatest invention may have been himself.” It’s therefore difficult, to tease out the facts from the fiction when it comes to Broonzy’s life.
Among what we do know: Bill worked locally in Pine Bluff as a sharecropper until he was drafted into the army in 1917. He served two years in Europe, before returning to Arkansas. Big Bill had first learned to play music on a cigar-box fiddle. When he moved to Chicago in 1920 in search of opportunity, he switched to guitar. That’s when he decided his main interest was music. Papa Charlie Jackson showed him the ropes, and though his initial test records were rejected, in 1927 Paramount released “Big Bill’s Blues” under the name Big Bill and Thomps. Throughout the 30s Big Bill recorded several sides under a number of pseudonyms as well as backing, both credited and uncredited, big-time Chicago names like Memphis Minnie, Sonny Boy Williamson I and Tampa Red. When he was asked to appear at John H. Hammond’s “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall, a number of opportunities opened up, including a small role in Swingin’ the Dream, a jazz adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Throughout the 1940s Big Bill honed his song-writing skills, looking to appeal to a more urban audience, while holding on to his country roots. In doing so, he helped fuse the rural blues with a new electric sound. He was one of the few black artists to directly address social and racial inequality in blues classics like “Black, Brown and White” and “Just a dream.” All the while he remained a mentor to up and coming Chicago blues musicians like Little Walter and Muddy Waters, effectively bridging the gap between prewar and postwar blues. In the 50s he embarked on numerous worldwide tours, before succumbing to the effects of throat cancer in 1958.
For the definitive life story of Big Bill Broonzy check out Bob Riesman’s “I Feel So Good.” Here’s one of the last videos taken of Big Bill.