William Lee Conley Broonzy 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. Seems a bit odd that he’d present himself as older than he was right? Could this be his twin sister presenting herself as being a bit younger than she was? Given his enormity as a performer how significant is his date of birth give or take a few years anyway? Turns out Laney was not a twin at all but four years older than Bill.
A fair bit of Bill’s story that he gave to his audiences was not actually a record of his own personal experiences after all but a whole load of bits and pieces picked up from others. Broonzy was not his real name. He was born into the world with the name Lee Conly Bradley.
Bill’s father Frank 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, guitar came later.
Country music came first, blues later but like so many other masters of the style his syncopated approach was very accomplished, and wonderfully rhythmic. (Check out his recording of ‘Hey Hey’). This style involving strumming the bass rhythm with the thumb and picking treble notes with the fingers is hard to get into but with persistence it’s suddenly there. How good at it you become after that, like everything else depends on how much practice you put in.
In about 1924, Big Bill moved to Chicago Illinois. 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 (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).
On 23 December, 1938, Big Bill was one of the principal solo performers in the first “From Spirituals to Swing” concert held at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Big Bill was a stand-in for Robert Johnson, who had been murdered in Mississippi in August that year. Concert organisers heard about Johnson’s death just a week before the concert was due to take place. Within weeks of that 1938 concert Bill was recording.
According to Harry “Sweets” Edison, a Trumpeter with the Count Basie Orchestra, also in the concert, Big Bill was so overwhelmed by the audience’s very enthusiastic 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 Carnegie Hall and caught a bus home.
When a second concert was organised in 1939, on Christmas Eve, Bill was there again. This time, again with Albert Ammons (the dynamite piano player), he performed two numbers: ‘Done Got Wise’, and ‘Louise, Louise’.
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, now of course a grown man, still lives in Amsterdam.
Bill passed away on 15th August 1958