Big Bill Broonzy Complete Recorded Works Vol 13 Unissued ARC, Mercury and “Live” European Recordings (1949-1951)
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This thirteenth volume of recordings by Big Bill Broonzy gives some idea of how this consummate performer was able to adapt to the many musical styles, trends, settings and eras that he encountered from the pre-war to post war years. From recording studios and night clubs of Chicago, Illinois, to the concert stage and night clubs Europe; Big Bill was one of the most remarkable of the blues artists to come from the pre-war period and ultimately became a pioneer as one of the blues world’s most famous ambassadors.
This collection begins, rather retrospectively, by presenting six alternative takes of titles recorded in Chicago for ARC by Big Bill between April, 1936 and January 1937. Other takes of these titles can be found on DOCD-5126 “Big Bill Broonzy Vol 4 1935 – 1936” and DOCD-5127 “Big Bill Broonzy Vol 5 1936 – 1937”. Having filled in some earlier gaps in Big Bill’s recording history, we move on to his first two recording sessions for the then fledgling, yet rapidly expanding, Mercury label, based in Chicago. There he met up with sax player Antonio Casey, pianist Carl Sharp, bass player Ransom Knowling and drummer Alfred Wallace. Big Bill and his colleagues recorded five numbers. All of the performances were of a high and some might say flawless standard.These recordings, made as “Bill Broonzy and his Fat Four”, represent Bill as one of the leading figures of Chicago’s “City” or “Urban Blues”. The band’s “down-home” sound, with Bill’s electric guitar and Knowling’s miked-up bass gives a warm yet energetic feel to the performances. Added to this, the characteristic 1940’s sound of the urban blues is accentuated further by dominant passages, crafted by the cries of Antonio Casey’s alto sax. In the same way that Bill’s earliest recordings, made in the late 1920’s and throughout the 30s, presented him as a fine exponent of the earlier “country blues” style, with, at times, extraordinary acoustic guitar accompaniment to his instantly agreeable vocal style, so did this first powerhouse session for Mercury underline Bill’s successful ability to move with the times and with great authority.
One of the best examples of his willingness to experiment and reinvent his music came with his return visit to the Mercury studios only a month later, this time with just the drummer Alfred Wallace. Following the full, urban, sound that the band had unquestionably produced in the previous session, Bill was about to successfully achieve a remarkable sea change by using a minimalistic approach to this second set of recordings for Mercury.
Track 16 and its subsequent tracks represent the final regeneration of Big Bill’s music, his career as a musician and his private life. In Europe the gathering interest in blues music came from an already large and vibrant fan-base for jazz. The Düsseldorf concert would be significant for two reasons. First, it would be one of the first concerts performed by non-German jazz musicians in Germany after World War Two. Secondly, the recording of the event, presented here, would become the only recording of his “live” performances to survive from his first tour of Europe.
Undoubtedly, compared to playing in the clubs of Chicago, during the twenties, thirties and forties, to stand on a stage in grand concert building in post-war Germany, in front of a large, white, seated audience, must have been a daunting experience for a black American performer who was relatively unknown beyond his own country. Yet, standing there alone in the spot light with only his acoustic guitar between him and his audience, Bill gently laughs and with that his audience gently laughs with him. Perhaps they are both acknowledging the extraordinary situation that they find themselves in. Indeed, Bill sounds genuinely happy as he moves with seemingly great confidence and rapport through his set. Perhaps he had taken a little “preparation” before he walked onto the stage. Who would blame him?
Instead of taking an easy route and easing himself into the set with a calm and gentle number, Bill introduces his first “title” and then opens up with a fizzing version of John Henry, using his rapid plectrum style, which he memorably used with great effect on such titles as “How You Want It Done?” recorded for the Banner label back in 1932. With the first two “thank you”’s of many to follow for his new audience, Bill by contrast, then plays the “calm” number; In The Evening When The Sun Goes Down. With perfect execution Bill has already won them over and one can only imagine the look of wonder and admiration if not curiousness of the faces in front of him as he gently eases his way, without another sound from the hall, through the song written by his old friend, the late Leroy Carr. By the end of the concert this new, enthralled audience, many, perhaps, becoming firm fans of Bill and his music for the first time, leave the hall for the bars or home, happy and satisfied.