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Celebrating Big Bill Broonzy

Chicago blues icon Big Bill Broonzy.Handout

Big Bill Broonzy, the guitarist, singer, and songwriter who was one of the towering figures of early Chicago blues, died in 1958, just as rock ’n’ roll was taking hold. Among British rock musicians, in particular, Broonzy’s influence loomed large over people such as Eric Clapton, Ray Davies, and Pete Townshend.

Broonzy’s legacy came into greater focus last year with “I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy,” author Bob Riesman’s illuminating account of his artistry. Now Riesman has taken the book on the road with a tribute show featuring Billy Boy Arnold, one of the last great blues harmonica players of his generation who first cut his teeth with Bo Diddley.


Arnold is featured in Riesman’s book and released his own homage, “Billy Boy Arnold Sings Big Bill Broonzy,” last year. They bring the show, which is both a discussion of Broonzy and performances of his music, to Club Passim on Tuesday, with Eric Noden accompanying Arnold on guitar.

We recently caught up with Riesman and Arnold on the phone from their homes in Chicago to see why Broonzy still matters.

Q. Billy Boy, how and when did you discover Broonzy’s music?

Arnold: I had heard Big Bill’s music when I was 6 or 7 years old, but I didn’t know who he was. I knew he played on records by Sonny Boy [Williamson, the blues harp master who mentored Arnold at a young age]. I really liked the sound of Big Bill’s guitar playing and his singing. He had so much soul, so much feeling. I was a young kid, but I liked the blues.

Q. Did you ever meet him?

Arnold: I met him when I was 15 years old. Blind John Davis, the piano player, went to Europe in 1951 with Broonzy. When Blind John came back to Chicago in the spring, he said, “I want you to meet Big Bill.” I went down to Silvio’s [a blues club] with Blind John, and they were having a cocktail party at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. They had a table with three or four fifths of whiskey on it. All the musicians would come in and have a jam session. They would participate in a show, and Big Bill was the star of the show. That’s how I met him.


Q. Bob, I got a sense from your book that you wanted to give Broonzy his due. Do you think he was unsung or maybe even a little underrated?

Riesman: What I found in the course of doing research for the book was that Bill, when he died in 1958, had a pretty significant level of prominence. There were obituaries for him in The New York Times and Time magazine and his passing was written about in the British music press. What happened in the years following his death is that his star did wane, which was ironic because many of Broonzy’s contemporaries — people like Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James — were rediscovered and got a wonderful level of recognition in the 1960s by younger white fans. I think it would have pleased Broonzy to know that he made an impact, but that [newfound fame] didn’t extend to him because he wasn’t around to take advantage of it the way his contemporaries were.


With words and music, author Bob Riesman (left) and harmonica player Billy Boy Arnold are paying tribute to Big Bill Broonzy.Dan Rys

Q. Billy Boy, did you expect Broonzy to have this kind of lasting legacy?

Arnold: Oh, yes. What a lot of people don’t realize is that in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, this music was based for black people, for black consumption only. The white audience wasn’t privy to this type of music. But Big Bill and Sonny Boy and Tampa Red were major stars for black audiences all over America. People thrived on these records. It was only around 1957 when the white audience was privy to this kind of music through Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard. When they heard this [rock ’n’ roll] music, they thought, “Wow, where did this music come from?” Well, the music had been around for a long time, and black people had been through it all the way. Big Bill Broonzy never stopped performing or recording. He was just a star among the black audience until he got into folk music in 1949. He started branching out, and the white audience knew him as a folk artist and didn’t know his blues singing.

Q. Do younger generations still discover and appreciate Broonzy?

Riesman: In 2013, for music fans who encounter Big Bill, it will generally be a journey. There will be a point of entry somewhere, maybe hearing B.B. King play “Key to the Highway,” a blues standard that Big Bill co-wrote, or hearing Eric Clapton play “Hey Hey.” What you find with Big Bill is that he was an uncommonly versatile musician who played in numerous styles, and he was also a creative artist who used his talents to speak out against racial injustice with songs like “Black, Brown, and White Blues.” He’s an artist who has a lot to say to us, even today.


Interview was edited and condensed. James Reed can be reached at
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