I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy
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A major figure in American blues and folk music, Big Bill Broonzy (1903–1958) left his Arkansas Delta home after World War I, headed north, and became the leading Chicago bluesman of the 1930s. His success came as he fused traditional rural blues with the electrified sound that was beginning to emerge in Chicago. This, however, was just one step in his remarkable journey: Big Bill was constantly reinventing himself, both in reality and in his retellings of it. Bob Riesman’s groundbreaking biography tells the compelling life story of a lost figure from the annals of music history.
I Feel So Good traces Big Bill’s career from his rise as a nationally prominent blues star, including his historic 1938 appearance at Carnegie Hall, to his influential role in the post-World War II folk revival, when he sang about racial injustice alongside Pete Seeger and Studs Terkel. Riesman’s account brings the reader into the jazz clubs and concert halls of Europe, as Big Bill's overseas tours in the 1950s ignited the British blues-rock explosion of the 1960s. Interviews with Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, and Ray Davies reveal Broonzy’s profound impact on the British rockers who would follow him and change the course of popular music.
Along the way, Riesman details Big Bill’s complicated and poignant personal saga: he was married three times and became a father at the very end of his life to a child half a world away. He also brings to light Big Bill’s final years, when he first lost his voice, then his life, to cancer, just as his international reputation was reaching its peak. Featuring many rarely seen photos, I Feel So Good will be the definitive account of Big Bill Broonzy’s life and music.
who was twenty-seven at the time, married with two children, and working as a tenant farmer “near Lake Dick,” although there is no discharge form for James among the hundreds of those who returned to Jefferson County in 1919.39 If Bill had in fact been drafted, he would have had to enter the system under someone else’s name. Given that in 1920 he was listed as Lee Bradley on his marriage license, which he obtained in Jefferson County, it seems unlikely that he would have had the need to create a
Bill Blues that he had met Melrose in 1928 while he was working as a grocery boy. He described how Melrose brought Bill to a studio to record four songs, and then two months later he recorded four additional songs. It is unlikely that these sessions happened in this period, since none of the songs that Bill mentioned match up with recording dates before 1932.19 Melrose remembered recording Bill for Paramount, however, and Bill’s connection with Paramount was secured, at least temporarily, by a
Company. Bob Koester, owner of Chicago-based Delmark Records, has spoken of Lester Melrose with admiration for his accomplishments. As Koester has s e rv e i t t o m e rig h t  pointed out, Melrose was a businessman operating on thin margins in a difficult environment. In particular, the amount due to composers and publishers was relatively small in absolute dollars in the 1930s and ’40s because Bluebird records only sold for 35 cents each. Even if a record sold 10,000 copies, which would
claim his place in the spotlight. “So one day I finally told to Memphis Slim, ‘You’s good enough now to go out on your own. You don’t need Big Bill or no other blues singer with you. Just get you some good musicians to play with you and you’ll be Memphis Slim just like I’m Big Bill.’ ”59 Then, as Bill described this interaction in his 1955 autobiography, “And so he did. . . . Memphis Slim is going big in the USA. He made some hit songs with his band. . . . Now [he] has a good six-piece band and
e b lu e s  In reality, Bill’s mother, Mittie Belcher Bradley, lived until late 1956, and he visited her regularly on his trips to see the Bradley clan in North Little Rock. Bill told Studs Terkel in 1957 that he never brought his guitar into his parents’ home, out of respect for her wish that there be “no sinful things done around the house.”21 According to Bill, the first time she ever saw him play was in 1940, when he played in Little Rock while touring with Lil Green. “Somebody told