Bluesman Big Bill Broonzy mentored Muddy Waters, co-founded the legendary Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago and inspired English rockers such as Eric Clapton and Keith Richards. But 50 years after his death, he remains a mystery — largely because he so thoroughly exaggerated and distorted the details of his life. Fortunately, blues historian Bob Riesman has dug deep to reveal the real Broonzy — or Lee Bradley, as he was born — in the new biography “I Feel So Good” ($27.50, University of Chicago Press).
How did you discover Big Bill Broonzy?
I kept coming across his name, but I effectively knew nothing about him as a musician. So I started seeking out his recordings. The first thing that struck me was his musicianship. I was really knocked out by his versatility.
Did the fact that Broonzy had exaggerated almost every aspect of his life make it more difficult for you as a biographer?
It turns out that he was born in a different time and at a different place to a different family than he had stated. But I was also trying to present to readers how remarkable a job he did of conveying the African-American experience to his listeners, who had no personal connection to what it was like growing up black in the American South.
So it was almost like you were playing private detective.
I had never done anything like this before, but I did have a background in human resources. I started with his autobiography and some of the interviews he did with Alan Lomax and Studs Terkel, and tried to document the facts of his life.
Broonzy seems to be such a huge influence across many genres, but he doesn’t enjoy the same legacy of his musical peers. Why is that?
The timing of his death [in 1958] was very unfortunate. He helped set in motion a set of forces that he wasn’t around to take advantage of. Skip James, Son House and Bukka White were all “rediscovered” and got a level of exposure they completely deserved. They were there, and Bill wasn’t.
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Written by Express contributor Stephen M. Deusner
Photo by Rachel Caplan