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Bill Broonzy

On 26/06/1893: Bill Broonzy was born (probably). His birth name was Lee Conley Bradley. There is some debate to where and when he was born, as Broonzy's account and family records seem to differ. Shortly after he was born the family moved to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where Bill grew up. At the age of 10, he turned a cigar box into a fiddle. His uncle taught him how to play folk and spiritual songs. Bill and his friend Louis Carter, who played the guitar, would begin performing at social and church functions.
According to some sources, by the age of 17, he was married and working as a sharecropper.
According to one story, he was offered $50 and a new violin to play a show. His wife accepted and took the money, forcing him to play. In 1916 his crop was wiped out by drought and the next year he was drafted into the army.
In 1919 he was discharged and returned to Pine Bluff, but shortly left to live in Little Rock. In 1920 he moved to Chicago.
Once in Chicago, he switched from the fiddle to guitar, receiving tuition from Papa Charlie Jackson. Whilst playing at various social gatherings he worked a number of jobs including Pullman porter, cook, foundry worker and custodian.
Bill's association with Jackson landed him an audition with Paramount. His first test recordings were rejected, but on his second try a few months later he was successful. The record "Big Bill's Blues" was released in 1927, though it was not well received.
In 1930 "Station Blues" was released, this time featuring the name Big Bill Broomsley. Record sales were still poor, but he was picked up by the producer, Lester Melrose. In 1931 he recorded several records under the name Big Bill Johnson.
In 1932 he moved to New York and recorded for the American Record Corporation. The record sales improved a bit. He then returned to Chicago to play at the clubs and he toured with Memphis Minnie.
In 1934 he started recording with pianist Bob "Black Bob" Call for Bluebird Records. His music started to turn into a stronger R&B sound. In 1937 he recorded with pianist Joshua Altheimer and a small instrumental group.
In 1938 he was recording with Vocalion records and was asked to replace the recently deceased Robert Johnson at Carnegie Hall. He also appeared that year in Swingin' the Dream, a jazz adaptation of Midsummer Night's Dream.
As well as his own recordings he also composed songs for Jazz Gillum, Tampa Red and his half brother Washboard Sam. He also recorded guitar for Washboard Sam.
In the 1940s he widened his songwriting and performances, playing ragtime, hokum blues, country blues, urban blues, jazz-tinged songs, folk songs and spirituals.
In 1940 he recorded the classic "Key to the Highway". The song is usually credited to Charles "Chas" Segar and Big Bill.
In 1945 he recorded "Where the Blues Began" and "Martha Blues". In 1948 he signed with Mercury Records.
In 1949 he toured with the revue I Come for to Sing. When the revue was in Ames, Broonzy met a Leonard and Lillian Feinberg who got him a custodial job at Iowa State, after a doctor told Broonzy to stop touring.
In 1951 he decided to leave Ames and went on tour in Europe, where he was warmly received.
When he returned to the US he was now a featured act and his finances became secure.
In 1953 he became a summer camp cook in Delton, Michigan, working summers there till 1956.
In 1955 he wrote his autobiography and toured worldwide into 1956.
In 1957 he was a founding member of Old Town School of Folk Music.
By the next year he was suffering from throat cancer. He died in August 1958.

The Music History Calendar is written by the Blues Rock artist Marshland Pete
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