In 1915, 17-year-old Broonzy was married and working as a sharecropper. He had decided to give up the fiddle and become a preacher. There is a story that he was offered $50 and a new violin if he would play four days at a local venue. Before he could respond to the offer, his wife took the money and spent it, so he had to play. In 1916 his crop and stock were wiped out by drought. Broonzy went to work locally until he was drafted into the Army in 1917. Broonzy served two years in Europe during the first world war. Then after his discharge from the Army in 1919, Broonzy returned to Pine Bluff, Arkansas where he is reported to have been called a racial epithet and told by a white man he knew before the war that he needed to "hurry up and get his soldier uniform off and put on some overalls." He immediately left Pine Bluff and moved to the Little Rock area but a year later in 1920 moved north to Chicago in search of opportunity.
After arriving in Chicago, Broonzy made the switch to guitar. He learned guitar from minstrel and medicine show veteran Papa Charlie Jackson, who began recording for Paramount Records in 1924. Through the 1920s Broonzy worked a string of odd jobs, including Pullman porter, cook, foundry worker and custodian, to supplement his income, but his main interest was music. He played regularly at rent parties and social gatherings, steadily improving his guitar playing. During this time he wrote one of his signature tunes, a solo guitar piece called "Saturday Night Rub".
Thanks to his association with Jackson, Broonzy was able to get an audition with Paramount executive J. Mayo Williams. His initial test recordings, made with his friend John Thomas on vocals, were rejected, but Broonzy persisted, and his second try, a few months later, was more successful. His first record, "Big Bill's Blues" backed with "House Rent Stomp", credited to "Big Bill and Thomps" (Paramount 12656), was released in 1927. Although the recording was not well-received, Paramount retained their new talent and the next few years saw more releases by "Big Bill and Thomps". The records continued to sell poorly. Reviewers considered his style immature and derivative.
In 1930 Paramount for the first time used Broonzy's full name on a recording, "Station Blues" – albeit misspelled as "Big Bill Broomsley". Record sales continued to be poor, and Broonzy was working at a grocery store. Broonzy was picked up by Lester Melrose, who produced acts for various labels including Champion and Gennett Records. He recorded several sides which were released in the spring of 1931 under the name "Big Bill Johnson". In March 1932 he traveled to New York City and began recording for the American Record Corporation on their line of less expensive labels: (Melotone, Perfect Records, et al.). These recordings sold better and Broonzy was becoming better known. Back in Chicago he was working regularly in South Side clubs, and even toured with Memphis Minnie.
In 1934 Broonzy moved to Bluebird Records and began recording with pianist Bob "Black Bob" Call. His fortunes soon improved. With Call his music was evolving to a stronger R&B sound, and his singing sounded more assured and personal. In 1937, he began playing with pianist Josh Althiemer, recording and performing using a small instrumental group, including "traps" (drums) and Double bass as well as one or more melody instruments (horns and/or harmonica). In March 1938 he began recording for Vocalion Records. Broonzy's reputation grew and in 1938 he was asked to fill in for the recently deceased Robert Johnson at the John H. Hammond-produced From Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall. He also appeared in the 1939 concert at the same venue. His success led him in this same year to a small role in Swingin' the Dream, Gilbert Seldes's jazz adaptation of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, set in 1890 New Orleans and featuring, among others, Louis Armstrong as Bottom and Maxine Sullivan as Titania, with the Benny Goodman sextet.
Broonzy's own recorded output through the 1930s only partially reflects his importance to the Chicago blues scene. His half-brother, Washboard Sam, and close friends, Jazz Gillum, and Tampa Red, also recorded for Bluebird. Broonzy was credited as composer on many of their most popular recordings of that time. He reportedly played guitar on most of Washboard Sam's tracks. Due to his exclusive arrangements with his own record label, Broonzy was always careful to have his name only appear on these artists' records as "composer".
Broonzy expanded his work during this period as he honed his song writing skills which showed a knack for appealing to his more sophisticated city audience as well as people that shared his country roots. His work in this period shows he performed across a wider musical spectrum than almost any other bluesman before or since including ragtime, hokum blues, country blues, city blues, jazz tinged songs, folk songs and spirituals. After World War II, Broonzy recorded songs that were the bridge that allowed many younger musicians to cross over to the future of the blues: the electric blues of post war Chicago. His 1945 recordings of "Where the Blues Began" with Big Maceo on piano and Buster Bennett on sax, or "Martha Blues" with Memphis Slim on piano, clearly show the way forward. One of his best-known songs, "Key to the Highway", appeared at this time. When the second American Federation of Musicians strike ended in 1948, Broonzy was picked up by the Mercury label.
At the start of the 1950s, Broonzy became part of a touring folk music revue formed by Win Stracke called I Come for to Sing, which also included Studs Terkel and Lawrence Lane. Terkel called him the key figure in this group. The group had some success thanks to the emerging folk revival movement. The exposure made it possible for Broonzy to tour Europe in 1951.
In Europe, Broonzy was greeted with standing ovations and critical praise wherever he played. The tour marked a turning point in his fortunes, and when he returned to the United States he was a featured act with many prominent folk artists such as Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. From 1953 on his financial position became more secure and he was able to live quite well on his music earnings. Broonzy returned to his solo folk-blues roots, and travelled and recorded extensively. Broonzy's numerous performances during the 1950s in the UK, and in particular at folk clubs in London and Edinburgh, were influential in the nascent British folk revival, with many British musicians on the folk scene, such as Bert Jansch, citing him as an important influence.
While in Holland, Broonzy met and fell in love with a Dutch girl, Pim van Isveldt. Together they had a child named Michael who still lives in Amsterdam.
In 1953, Dr. Vera (King) Morkovin and Studs Terkel took Broonzy to Circle Pines Center, a cooperative year-round camp in Hastings, Michigan, where he was employed as the summer camp cook. He worked there in the summer from '53–'56. On 4 July 1954, Pete Seeger travelled to Circle Pines and gave a concert with Bill on the farmhouse lawn, which was recorded by Seeger for the new fine arts radio station in Chicago, WFMT-FM.
In 1955, with the assistance of Belgian writer Yannick Bruynoghe, Broonzy published his autobiography, entitled Big Bill Blues. He toured worldwide to Africa, South America, the Pacific region and across Europe into early 1956. In 1957 Broonzy was one of the founding faculty members of the Old Town School of Folk Music. At the school's opening night on 1 December, he taught a class "The Glory of Love".
By 1958 Broonzy was suffering from the effects of throat cancer. He died 15 August 1958, and is buried in Lincoln Cemetery, Blue Island, Illinois.
Big Bill nació bajo el nombre de William Lee Conley Broonzy en el condado de Scott, Misisipi. El año exacto de su nacimiento no ha sido aun esclarecido. Algunos autores, señalan que era hermanastro de Washboard Sam.1 En cualquier caso, Broonzy abandonó Misisipi en 1924 para trasladarse a Chicago, donde se encontró con Papa Charlie Jackson, quien le enseñó a tocar la guitarra (el violín había sido el instrumento de Broonzy hasta entonces). Broonzy grabó por primera vez acompañándose a sí mismo en 1929. Hacia 1936 se convirtió en uno de los primeros bluesman en usar un pequeño grupo instrumental, incluyendo batería y contrabajo, así como uno o más instrumentos melódicos (metales o armónica). Estas grabaciones solían llevar el nombre de Big Bill and his Chicago Five.
Durante esta época Broonzy actuaba en los clubs del South Side de Chicago y también realizó tournés con Memphis Minnie en los años 30. Broonzy grabó para distintas discográficas durante los 30 y 40, con músicos como Jazz Gillum. En los años 50 volvió a sus raíces folk-blues tocando solo y recorrió Europa extensamente, dando conciertos y grabando, en 1956. Aunque había sido un pionero del estilo de Chicago y había empleado instrumentos eléctricos desde 1942 su nuevo, y blanco, público deseaba escuchar sus canciones acompañándose de guitarra acústica solamente, considerándolo más auténtico.
Broonzy volvió a Chicago y continuó actuando, aunque su salud estaba empeorando. Falleció en 1958 a causa de un cáncer de garganta. Fue enterrado en el cementerio Lincoln, en Blue Island, Illinois.
Durante su periodo folk-blues grabó con Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry y Brownie Mcghee y Leadbelly. Como Broonzy no era un guitarrista eléctrico de estilo espectacular no es tan conocido como otros artistas contemporáneos del género y no fue tan imitado durante el revival británico del blues en los 60. Aun así, ganó cierta popularidad por su canción Key To The Highway, grabada por Eric Clapton en el álbum Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs, de Dereck And The Dominoes. Fue un aclamado guitarrista acústico y una gran fuente de inspiración para artistas como Muddy Waters y Memphis Slim.
En total Big Bill Broonzy grabó más de 350 composiciones.