Big Bill Broonzy (1893 or 1898-1958) was a prolific United States composer, recorder and performer of blues songs. Born in Mississippi, he arrived in Chicago in 1924, where he met Papa Charlie Jackson, who taught him to play guitar (Broonzy had previously been a fiddler). Broonzy first recorded as a self-accompanied singer in 1929, and continued to record in that style. Around 1936, he became one of the first blues singers to use a small instrumental group, including "traps" (drums) and acoustic bass as well as one or more melody instruments (horns and/or harmonica). These discs were usually issued as Big Bill and his Chicago Five. At that time, Broonzy was recording for the American Record Corporation on their line of less expensive labels (Melotone, Perfect Records, et al). In 1939, ARC was acquired by CBS, and Broonzy then appeared on Vocalion (later Okeh) and, after 1945, on Columbia Records. One of his best-known songs was written at that time, "Key To the Highway."
During this time, Broonzy usually played South Side clubs, and also toured with Memphis Minnie during the 1930s. When the second American Federation of Musicians strike ended in 1948, Broonzy was picked up by the Mercury Records label, for whom he made a handful of records through 1951. After that, Broonzy returned to his solo folk-blues roots, and traveled extensively (and recorded) across Europe into early 1956. Broonzy returned to Chicago in 1956 and continued to perform, though his health was beginning to fail; he would eventually die of throat cancer in 1958, and is buried in Chicago. During his folk-blues period, he recorded with Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and Leadbelly. A considerable portion of his early ARC/CBS recordings have been reissued in anthology collections by CBS-Sony; as well, other earlier recordings have been collected on blues reissue labels, as have his later European and Chicago recordings of the fifties.
Since Broonzy was never a spectacular electric guitarist in the manner of others of his early-fifties contemporaries, he is not as well known as others of that period, and was not extensively covered during the "British Blues Revival" of the sixties; however, his work is well worth searching out for those who love blues and the history of the genre.
He recorded over 350 compositions, and was discovered in the fifties by a young, white, college-educated audience, and spent the rest of his life performing at folk festivals nationwide.