Big Bill Broonzy had a recording career that began in 1927 and ended with his death in 1958, by then he'd cut hundreds of titles and gone from Chicago clubs to European concert halls. He was active in the southside clubs in the 30's and 40's and was considered a patriarch of the scene there--newcomers like Muddy Waters sought out his advice. When he began recording he was an accomplished rag-time based picker, with a heavily syncopated beat and adept, single-string lead lines. His drag-thumb style of rhythm and habit of picking even the treble strings with his the thumb on the downbeat made for a eminently danceable sound, he was noted for good-time blues. He had a hit on the then popular Bluebird jukebox label with the standard "Key To The Highway", and in the 60s, when Chicago label Chess Records was casting about for a concept album to appeal to the growing folk-blues audiences, they wound up with MUDDY WATERS SINGS BIG BILL BROONZY.
After the war, the Bluebird Beat styled recordings lost their audience who were more receptive to the down-home driving styles of the newly born Chicago blues bands, and Broonzy wound up spending time as a janitor at Iowa State University. In 1951 he was "rediscovered" and began a second career as an solo acoustic folk-blues singer, doing blues standards such as "Trouble In Mind", "Frankie & Johnny" and "C C Rider" for white audiences--both on campus here and in concerts in Europe--he paved the way for the blues revival that would later inspire The Stones, Animals and others. His style had slowed down considerably, he was playing sparser stop-and-start guitar behind his impassioned, now in the forefront "hollering" and telling stories about plowing fields and driving his mule to audiences enthralled by an "authentic" field hand. Broonzy was an accomplished entertainer--he knew how to give an audience what it wanted.
This 21 track, 70 minute CD comes from those latter years, it's a compilation of his previously released work on Folkways Records, comprising studio recordings, FM radio broadcasts and a cut from a 1956 college concert. Besides the above mentioned chestnuts, the set includes his double-entendre special "Digging My Potatoes", the spiritual "This Train" (the basis for Willie Dixon's hit for Little Walter "My Babe"), and the protest numbers "When Will I Get To Be Called A Man" and "Black Brown And White". At the time, these tracks didn't have the visceral funk and deep emotional connection that the Chicago bluesmen were putting out on Chess, Veejay and Cobra labels--but taken on their own, some years down the line now, they're an interesting and well performed body of work. Bill is a powerful singer, and plays an infectious raggy guitar on his uptempo pieces, and has a subtle touch on the many slower blues ballads. This set makes for a good overview of his second career. Just don't forget he had a raunchier first one as well.
Like the concurrently released CD of Big Bill Broonzy Folkways tracks, this album has as it's theme a second-career move by the artist. Both Broonzy and boogie-woogie pianist Memphis Slim (Peter Chatman) had active incarnations as blues artists in the 30's and 40's in Chicago, recording frequently on the popular Bluebird label. Both experienced letdowns as the publics musical tastes changed, and both found new lives by aiming their music at white audiences, here and overseas. In fact, Slim wound becoming an expatriate "blues ambassador" in France by 1962. He was treated well enough there that he often was driven to gigs in a Rolls Royce, and received an award from the French government. Though headquartered in Europe, he frequently returned to the US for recording sessions and work in clubs and on the festival circuit. Though he began as a "stomp-down" pianist in juke joints, Slim had evolved to a smooth entertainer. His later music was suitable for the upscale supper clubs; he played a mix of blues, ballads and novelty numbers, but his roots also went back as far as his premiere version of the classic blues, "Mother Earth."
He began recording for Folkways about the time his R&B career dried up, and over the course of 14 years wound up featured on five albums bearing his name, as well as also on albums backing Jazz Gillum & Pete Seeger as an accompanist. This CD is a collection of tracks from those albums, with a bonus of 3 unissued cuts; an instrumental only version of "The Dirty Dozens," a noted ribald piece, the Joe Williams signature piece "Every Day I Have The Blues" and "The Gimmick", an instrumental featuring Slim on Hammond organ. All told there about 5 instrumentals, many featuring Slim's steady rocking left-hand boogie figures.
The set has Slim in a variety of settings, from solo piano to duo work with bassist Willie Dixon, to small ensembles including bass drums and electric guitar of Arbee Stidham or sometime-Slim-bandmember Matt "Guitar" Murphy. Slim shows up as sideman on two cuts; one a live Pete Seeger rendition of Leadbellys "Midnight Special" with Slim and Dixon on harmony vocal, the other backing harpist Jazz Gillum on his big hit, "Key To The Highway." Over 21 tracks (most blues standards) in 65 minutes, you get a good survey of one of the bigger (6'6") pianomen around. It's not deep blues, but it's a good way to spend an hour in ivoryville.
This review is copyright © 2000 by Tony Glover, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.