But Big Bill Broonzy has been virtually forgotten by the popular culture he helped shape.
Robert Johnson, who long ago became a commercial juggernaut and an object of media adoration, Broonzy seems unjustly eclipsed.
Which is why an important new book, "I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy" (University of Chicago Press) comes not a moment too soon. In its pages, author Bob Riesman pieces together fragments of a hitherto under-documented life, giving Broonzy's achievements the honor they deserve. Broonzy songs such as "Key to the Highway," "Just a Dream" and "Black, Brown and White Blues" have endured as classics, and Riesman's writing gives context to their creation.
He also shows Broonzy's eloquence in addressing the high toll of racism – expressed through Broonzy's songs and commentary – and traces the man's mercurial ability to transform himself from country blues singer to urban blues star to international musical celebrity (albeit an oft-impoverished one).
All of which makes one wonder why Broonzy has faded from the popular imagination.
"The timing of his death was unfortunate," says Riesman, of a musician who died in 1958 (Broonzy was born either in Mississippi in 1893, as he said, or in Arkansas in 1903, as Riesman asserts).
"There's a sad irony to his death, because it occurred at a time that forces he had set in motion really gathered momentum, in the late '50s and surged in the '60s," adds Riesman.
"For example, there's a set of acoustic blues musicians who had not recorded for decades, who, due to the diligent efforts of young white fans, were rediscovered: Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James. All re-emerged at that time and were able to come perform … across the country. And they deserved the (belated) prominence they got."
Broonzy's death denied him that kind of career resurgence, though his tireless concertizing across the U.S. and Europe – and his appearances on recordings and in documentary film – set the stage for the triumphs of so many others.
As for why Robert Johnson, by contrast, has enjoyed near-deification in our popular culture, Riesman cites Columbia Records' 1961 release of "Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers," a reissue that introduced Johnson him to new public and reignited interest in the work of a singular blues creator.
Broonzy's achievements may never be as widely celebrated as Johnson's, yet they're similarly revered by those familiar with his deft guitar playing and seductive vocals.
Yet you can't tell the story of Broonzy without acknowledging the work of Chicago author and music lover Studs Terkel, who called Broonzy "the king of blues singers." Terkel championed Broonzy at every turn, featuring him regularly on WFMT 98.7 FM and interviewing him in depth in a series of recordings that would be released in 1961 as "The Big Bill Broonzy Story." No one did more to argue Broonzy's case than Terkel.
Because hard-and-fast documentation of Broonzy's early life is scarce, Riesman makes some rather sizable deductions in this biography. The pages in which Riesman examines Broonzy's early years, for instance, are peppered with phrases such as "more likely," "most likely," "the probability" and other estimations that do not carry the weight of fact. Yet Riesman builds many of his theses upon them.
Yet these assertions – all open to debate – ultimately prove less important than Riesman's bigger, broader portrait of Broonzy as a blues innovator who profoundly altered the course of the music yet was swindled by his employers, most notably impresario Lester Melrose (whose brother, Walter, similarly had robbed the jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton).
Thanks to Riesman, Broonzy's story now can be heard in full – or at least as fully as is possible to reconstruct at this late date.
"The real old time singers who worked in the fields, there's almost none of them left now," Broonzy is quoted as saying in the book. "I'm 58 and caretaker (janitor) of a college now. You can't make a living with the real blues no longer, man."
But you can hear why Broonzy still ranks among the giants.
Glen Ellyn jazz
The fifth annual Jazz Fest Glen Ellyn will run 3 to 10 p.m. July 9 along the western suburb's Main Street, roughly between Crescent Boulevard and Pennsylvania Avenue. The lineup will feature Two for Brazil at 3 p.m.; Alison Ruble Group, with John McLean, 4:30 p.m.; Orbert Davis Quintet, 6 p.m.; Marshall Vente & Tropicale, 7:30 p.m.; and Mike Allemana Organ Quartet, featuring Scott Burns, 9 p.m.
Admission is free. For details, visit jazzfestglenellyn.org.
Mike Jones at the Mill
Pianist Mike Jones, who plays for Penn & Teller's show at the Rio in Las Vegas, made his annual pilgrimage to Chicago over the weekend and sounded in particularly high spirits Saturday night at the Green Mill Jazz Club. The bluesy sensibility he showed in "I've Got the World on a String," the phenomenal high velocity he brought to "The Sheik of Araby" and the sweetly understated melodies he spun in "But Not for Me" attested to the increasing expressive breadth of his music-making. The man never has sounded better.
Printers Row Lit Fest
Howard Reich will interview Bob Riesman, author of "I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy," and Michael Charry, author of "George Szell: A Life of Music," 11 a.m. Saturday at the Center Stage of the Printers Row Lit Fest, on and around Dearborn Street, from Harrison to Polk Streets.
The 27th annual Chicago Tribune Printers Row Lit Fest is June 4-5. More information and tickets: chicagotribune.com/printersrowlitfest.