This review was originally posted on the first Toorak Times web site where publications ceased on that site in March 2017. The old site will be permanently closed in 2020 and these reviews are being re-published in order to preserve them on the current Toorak Times/Tagg site.
This is album retro-review number 157 in the series of retro-reviews of both vinyl and Cd albums in my collection.
The series is called “Cream of The Crate” and each review represents an album that I believe is of significant musical value, either because of it’s rarity, because it represents the best of a style or styles of music or because there is something unique about the group or the music.
Links to the previous 150 reviews can be found at the bottom of this review.
It’s always just a little more pleasurable to dip into one of my crates and pull out a blues album, especially when it features a man who is an absolute classic bluesman, as I intend to demonstrate to anyone not familiar with his work.
The artist is Big Bill Broonzy and this is a compilation album and is titled – Big Bill Blues – his 23 greatest songs.
The album was released on the CD format in 2004 on the Wolf (Blues Classics) label and it has the identifying code of BC006.
The album has as the name suggests, 23 tracks.
The story of Big Bill Broonzy can be summed up in two words – Quality and Quantity!
In terms of his musical skill, the sheer size of his repertoire, the length and variety of that career is stunning.
Then there is his lasting influence upon both his contemporaries and the legions of musicians that have followed right through to today. This has put him squarely into the realm of the select few of the most important players in recorded blues history!
Surely C.C Rider is one of the absolute standards in blues music, and it is only one of the hundreds of tracks written and played by Broonzy.
He would make the move from a delta style into the urban blues very successfully and he would be instrumental in the growth of the Chicago Blues sound.
More than that, he would entertain a myriad of blues fans, amaze his contemporaries and when he travelled abroad, his influence and the respect he garnered would see him ranked as one of the leading blues ambassadors.
Now there are three possible dates of his birth.
26th June 1983 is the one he would often give, and indeed is the date quoted in the booklet liner notes with this CD.
However Bill’s twin sister Laney, claimed she had documents that indicated it was 1898.
Then there is the in-depth research conducted by Bob Reisman and used in his book – I Feel So Good, which indicates he was born on the 26th June 1903!
Big Bill Broonzy was not his birth name, which in fact was Lee Conley Bradley.
His father Frank Broonzy (Bradley) and his mother, Mittie Belcher, had both been born into slavery and Bill was actually one of seventeen children. Life wasn’t easy for the family.
His first instrument was a violin which he learned to play with some tuition from his uncle, his mother’s brother, Jerry Belcher. Although even this last “fact” is also challenged by Reisman. The lack of well kept records during this period doesn’t help scholars.
After a brief stint at the pulpit and an equally short stint in the army, he moved to Chicago where he switched from violin to guitar playing with such notable players such as Papa Charlie Jackson.
Big Bill started recording in 1927 and his first recordings were with Paramount. His music and indeed his performances in the early 1930’s, were a mixture of brilliant blues and “hokum” [pretentious nonsense used to evoke a desired audience response].
Big Bill Broonzy was not just a great blues player, he was a showman!
During this period he played with the pianist – Black Bob, the guitarist, Bill Weldon and the great Memphis Minnie [an artist I have been quite remiss in not retro-reviewing, and will do so in the near future]
During the terrible years of the Great Depression, Big Bill continued on full steam ahead, doing what could only be described as “acrobatic label-hopping”, as he went from Paramount to Bluebird to Columbia to Okeh!
During this time he worked constantly and often contributing his guitar licks to other artists such as Bumble Bee Slim, John Lee (Sonny Boy) Williamson [aka Sonny Boy Williamson I], and many other bluesmen.
In 1938 he appeared at the famous Carnegie Hall (ostensibly filling in for the “fallen” Robert Johnson) and in the next 12 months appeared with musical luminaries such as Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong in George Seides film – “Swingin’ The Dream“, albeit that was a short appearance.
He continued working in and between Chicago and New York through until 1951 when his name and fame became so big, his appearance in Europe was being demanded and he undertook a worldwide tour.
In 1955 his biography, “Big Bill Blues” was published. Then in 1957 he set off for a British tour.
However, his age, lifestyle and the pace and demands of touring were catching up on him. Sadly, he spent the last year of his life in and out of hospital and he succumbed to cancer on August 15, 1983 in Chicago.
Big Bill left behind him a vast selection of works, and the exact number is still disputed today.
Many of his releases were multi-album sets but it is believed that there are in excess of 100 albums.
There is a complete discography called “Hit The Right Lick” written by Chris Smith, that is purported to accurately identify most if not all of his works. Unfortunately it is out of publication and a rare book to find.
The accompanying booklet with this CD is not of a high quality.
It consists of a three page double sided fold-out with the front doubling for the cover to the CD, it has three sides of information on Big Bill Broonzy.
It certainly slides over many parts of his story and just as messy, it comes in a variety of font sizes (no explanation for that) and even the printing on the pages is not straight.
It has what the publisher calls a “discography” but is in fact a list of the artists who play on each track – a great feature but totally mislabeled.
One side does have a picture of Big Bill with his guitar.
Really, I struggle to give it 4/10, and it is only that high because the list of accompanying artists also lists the dates of recording, which is very handy for those of us who take the time to seek this information out.
What IS fantastic is that the producer of this album has at least placed the tracks chronologically starting with a 1927 release and going through to 1942.
Big Bill Blues – Track Listing
- House Rent Stomp
- Big Bill Blues
- Down in the Basement Blues
- Saturday Night Rub
- Police Station Blues
- Mr. Conductor Man
- Bull Cow Blues
- Milk Cow Blues
- Mississippi River Blues
- C.C. Rider
- Evil Woman Blues
- Louise, Louise Blues
- New Shake ‘Em On
- Wpa Rag
- I Believe I’ll Go Back Home
- Just a Dream (On My Mind)
- Plow Hand Blues
- Looking for My Baby
- Lone Wolf Blues
- Lonesome Road Blues
- Key to the Highway
- Tell Me Baby
- Hard Hearted Woman
Choosing a few tracks too feature is damn near impossible because it is very hard to justify one Big Bill track over another.
Let’s start at the beginning with track 1 – House Rent Stomp.
This is the only track from 1927 on the album. Now the notes say he is accompanied by John Thomas who not so much sings, as narrates & supports Big Bill on guitar.
The track was recorded in November of that year in Chicago and was possibly his first recording. While recorded in 1927 it wasn’t released until 1928 when it was placed on the other side of a single that featured Big Bill’s Blues.
The track was considered as very rudimentary, the recording was as basic as it could be and garnered little acclaim, but already we can hear Big Bills guitar style starting to form.
House Rent Stomp
Given track 1 on this album was on the other side of the single – Big Bill Blues, which in turn is track 2 – it makes sense to listen to this one as well.
Again accompanied by John Thomas on guitar, we hear for the first time the voice of Big Bill.
To our ears it can sound very crude and the surface noise is almost as loud as the vocals and is in fact the way it was recorded.
With today’s technology I could clean this right up, but somehow it sounds right to leave it this way.
The playing is indeed rudimentary and it was probably a one-take recording, as there are a number of incorrect notes played .But it utterly captures the essential essence of not just the way Big Bill played the blues, but played it live.
Lord my hair’s a-rising, my flesh begins to crawl
Aw my hair’s a-rising, my flesh begin to crawl
I had a dream last night baby, another mule in my doggone stall
Now there’s some people said the Big Bill blues ain’t bad
Now some people said the Big Bill blues ain’t bad
Lord it must not have been them Big Bill blues they had
Lord I wonder what’s the matter, papa Bill can’t get no mail
Lord wonder what’s the matter now, papa Bill can’t get no mail
Lord the post office must be on fire, the mailman must undoubtedly be in jail
I can’t be your wagon, cinch I ain’t gonna be your mule
Mmmm can’t be your wagon mama, cinch I ain’t gonna be your mule
I ain’t gonna fix up your black plantation, I ain’t gonna be your doggone fool
Big Bill Blues
Track 10 is C.C. Rider.
This track is an absolute blues standard that cannot be attributed to any particular artist, although Ma Rainey was first to popularise it in 1924.
Covered by many blues artists the Big Bill Broonzy version was recorded in October 1934 with Bob Black Call on piano accompanying Big Bill.
What is fantastic is that it features Big Bill not on guitar, but on violin.
We need to recall that this was Big Bills first instrument and it is quite amazing to hear a classic blues standard being played by one of the blues greats, using a violin.
Identifying Bob “Black Bob” Call is also difficult as there are up to four different artists who may have been Black Bob. So whether because of this association or not, Big Bills fortunes started to improve.
Around 1937 he met up and started recording with Joshua Altheimer and we find his sound becoming far more sophisticated.
Track number 13 – New Shake ‘Em On is a wonderful example of this “new sound”.
The sound he got on this tract has often referred too as an early R&B sound.
Playing with Big Bill on this track is Joshua Altheimer on piano, George Barnes on electric guitar and Ransom Knowling on double bass.
Originally recorded by Bukka White a year before hand and titled Shake ‘Em On Down, the Broonzy version is far superior in all ways and was the more popular version at the time.
Subsequently the track was covered by a number of other artists.
New Shake ‘Em On
From this point onward Big Bill continued to hone his skills and although he continued to record blues, he also continued playing both country and hokum and even spiritual blues, all in the same more basic manner as he had in previous years but, the changes could be heard.
Such an example of this developing style track 14 – WPA Rag.
There is no doubt from here on his writing and playing skills were beginning to appeal to the more sophisticated audiences in the large cities.
Incidentally Wikipedia claims this track was recorded first around 1945, but it can’t have been, as it appears on this album, where recordings finish at 1942.
In the book Big Bill Broonzy by by Ellen Harold and Peter Stone, they write – “Broonzy’s guitar-accompanied vocal, “Key to the Highway,” issued in 1941, was to be his most successful record.
He had recorded this on Bluebird as guitar accompanist for his friend Jazz Gillum (vocal) in 1940.
Another singer, Charles Segar, had cut a 12-bar version (with a slower tempo and different tune) some months before Gillum and Broonzy’s eight-bar version. “Key to the Highway” is now usually credited to Broonzy and Segar.
Broonzy’s version would be covered by Brownie McGhee (1946), Little Walter (1958), John Lee Hooker (1959), Mance Lipscomb (1964), the Rolling Stones (1964), Eric Clapton (1970), Muddy Waters (1971), and Buddy Guy (1993), to name a few.
In 2010, Broonzy’s recording of “Key to the Highway” was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame’s Classics of Blues Recordings category.
I got the key to the highway, and I’m billed out and bound to go
I’m gonna leave here runnin’, cause walkin’ is most too slow
I’m goin’ down on the border, now where I’m better known
Cause woman you don’t do nothin’, but drive a good man ‘way from home
Now when the moon creeps over the mountain, I’ll be on my way
Now I’m gonna walk this old highway, until the break of day
Come here, sweet mama, now and help me with this heavy load
I am due in West Texas, and I’ve got to get on the road
I’m goin’ to West Texas, I’m goin’ down behind the farm(?)
I’m gonna ax the good Lord what evil have I done
Key To The Highway
By the time we get to the final track, track 23, we really can appreciate the sophistication of the line-up of musicians supporting him.
Hard Hearted Woman was recorded March of 1942 and featured with Big Bill was Buster Burnett (aka Memphis Slim) on piano, Judge Riley on drums and the amazing Punch Miller on trumpet.
So not only are the compositions becoming more sophisticated, certainly the instrumentation supporting Broonzy is definitely more sophisticated and there is very much an under-current of jazz to this fine blues track.
By now Big Bill Broonzy was recording with OKeh Records and while the recordings on this album finish at 1942, he actually went on to do some amazing recording throughout the 1940’s. B
ut for now just enjoy listening to the voice of Big Bill Broonzy with Hard Hearted Woman.
Hard Hearted Woman
There are so many blues greats it might be easy to underestimate the importance of Big Bill Broonzy to both the blues, as well as to other blues players.
Broonzy was a natural leader, who in the 1940s advised and helped younger musicians such as Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Jimmy Rodgers (James A. Lane), and Memphis Slim.
In the 1950s and 60s he influenced British rock and blues performers, notably Eric Clapton and Keith Richards.
In listening to the music from the earliest recording through to the years leading into WWII, while we do gradually hear a more sophisticated Big Bill Broonzy, there is little doubt that what we are listening to is honest blues.
This is blues in its many forms as we might have heard if we were wandering through those small southern towns in the early part of the 20th century.
It is fast moving toward 100 years since Big Bill recorded that first track, and we can sit back now and rejoice in the fact that his recordings are still with us.
Let’s leave the final words to Lee Conley Bradley (who we remember as Big Bill Broonzy).
“When you write about me please don’t say I’m a jazz musician. Don’t say I’m a musician or a guitar player – just write Big Bill was a well-known blues singer and player and has recorded 260 blues songs from 1925 up till 1952; he was a happy man when he was drunk and playing with women; he was liked by all the blues singers.”
The album is available through Ebay for around $17.00 (postage free) so it is a good purchase and if you are a blues fan, or like to have a good rounding of all styles in your collection.
Maybe you just want to hear more after this review?
If so then I would encourage you to make the purchase.
There are, surprisingly, quite a few clips of Big Bill playing, but nothing from the period we have been discussing. However these are still most definitely worth viewing.
When Did You leave Heaven (1956)
Hey Hey (circa 1956)
Trouble In Mind 1958
“Worried Man Blues,” “Hey, Hey” and “How You Want It Done.” From the DVD “A Musical Journey: The Films of Pete, Toshi and Dan Seeger
Previous Cream of The Crate Albums:
To view/listen the first 50 vinyl album reviews just click the image below –
To view/listen the first 50 Cd album reviews just click the image below –
To view/listen album reviews 101 – 150 just click the image below –
Click to open the following reviews covering #’s 151 onward.
#155. Billy Thorpe – Tangier