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Big Bill Broonzy was one of America's legendary blues performers, an inspiration for many other blues legends and an influence for rockers, including Eric Clapton and Pete Townsend. Yet, the fact that Big Bill Broonzy's life have remained elusive until now. A new biography traces the musician's path from the rural South to the south side of Chicago.

From member station WCPN, David C. Barnett has the story of a performer who survived by constantly reinventing himself.

DAVID C. BARNETT: The man who came to be known as Big Bill Broonzy arrived in Chicago sometime in the early 1920s, playing acoustic country blues.

(Soundbite of music)

BARNETT: Musician Billy Boy Arnold was a teenager when he first saw Broonzy at a club, two decades later.

Mr. BILLY ARNOLD (Musician): This big giant of a guy came in the doorway with a guitar in his hand.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ARNOLD: And he was muscular - he wasn't fat. Black as midnight, you know, and drank and, you know, and seemed to be a very jolly guy.

(Soundbite of song, "I Love My Whiskey")

BIG BILL BROONZY AND HIS FAT FOUR: (Singing) I love my whiskey, and I got a quarter right here in my hand...

BARNETT: Broonzy became the king of the Chicago blues scene but the king was about to lose his crown.

(Soundbite of music)

BARNETT: A younger generation of blues performers was starting to pack audiences into South Side clubs. Billy Arnold says everything changed in 1950 with the release of Muddy Waters' "Rollin' Stone."

(Soundbite of song, "Rollin' Stone")

Mr. MUDDY WATERS: (Singing) I went to my baby's house, and I sit down, oh, on her steps...

Mr. ARNOLD: It was real powerful and as lowdown as you could get. And the people really liked that 'cause that's what they feel in they heart, see?

BARNETT: So, Big Bill Broonzy changed his musical direction. Chicago was home to a growing folk scene, fueled by young, white intellectuals. It was a time when performers were using music as a tool for social change, and Broonzy was inspired to write what would become one of his most memorable songs.

(Soundbite of song, "Black, Brown and White Blues")

Mr. BROONZY: (Singing) This little song that I'm singing about, people you all know it's true. If you're black and gotta work for a living, now this is what they will say to you. They says, if you's white, you're alright. If you's brown, stick around. But if you's black, oh brother, get back, get back, get back.

BARNETT: "Black, Brown and White Blues" was probably heard more by white audiences than black. And despite the song's pointed critique of discrimination, there were some in the African-American community who didn't appreciate Broonzy's shift into folk music.

Billy Arnold wasn't very fond of his old friend's new direction.

Mr. ARNOLD: I didn't like the folk stuff he was doing. And he didn't play that Jimmy Crack Corn in no black clubs, 'cause that wouldn't have went over no kind of way.

BARNETT: Broonzy biographer Bob Riesman thinks that the singer's new focus was just a demonstration of his versatility and his instinct for survival.

Mr. BOB RIESMAN (Historian, Biographer): I don't think he would have seen that as compromising his integrity in any way. He was a working musician.

BARNETT: But Broonzy changed more than his musical style. Throughout his life, the singer also altered parts of his personal history.

(Soundbite of music)

BARNETT: During a lengthy recording session in 1957, he told some compelling stories about his childhood in rural Mississippi and about the roots of his music.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BROONZY: My mother was a slave, my father was a slave, and I'm just going by what I got from them about different songs.

BARNETT: But Bob Riesman says the singer didn't really come from Mississippi, his parents were not slaves and his name wasn't Broonzy.

Mr. RIESMAN: It turned out that he was Lee Bradley of Jefferson County, Arkansas, about 60 miles or so southeast of Little Rock.

BARNETT: After 10 years of research, Riesman says he's come to reconcile the facts of Broonzy's life with the stories he told.

Mr. RIESMAN: He treated his life story as a set of fluid possibilities, as opposed to fixed events. And his imaginative powers were formidable. As Studs Terkel said, Bill is telling the truth - his truth.

BARNETT: By the mid-1950s, Bill Broonzy was captivating audiences across the U.S. and Europe with his songs and stories.

(Soundbite of music)

BARNETT: But his newfound success wouldn't last much longer. The singer's health started to deteriorate...

(Soundbite of coughing)

BARNETT: ...due to a cancer that was spreading through his lungs.

Mr. STUDS TERKEL: Bill, you want to hear how this sounds?

Mr. BROONZY: Yeah, I did, yeah, if it ain't too horrible.

BARNETT: Chicago radio personality Studs Terkel oversaw Broonzy's final recording session, which had been set up by a Cleveland disc jockey. Bill Randle was nationally famous as a pop music hit-maker, having boosted the careers of the Crew Cuts and Pat Boone. In a 1999 interview, the late Randle said financing the Broonzy sessions was partially an act of penitence.

Mr. BILL RANDLE (Late Disc Jockey): In the course of it, I guess I developed what you would call a cultural guilt complex. And also I had the money. So, I decided that I would just do some things that I thought should be done, and one of them was to record Big Bill Broonzy. I didn't know that he was sick.

(Soundbite of song, "Key to the Highway")

Mr. BROONZY: (Singing) I've got the key to the highway, yes, I'm billed out and bound to go. I'm gonna leave, leave here runnin' 'cause walk is most too slow...

BARNETT: The morning after the final session, Broonzy went into the hospital. He died about a year later. His funeral was an event. Gospel great Mahalia Jackson sang a hymn. His pall bearers included Muddy Waters, Tampa Red, Studs Terkel and Chicago folk legend Win Stracke. Stracke's daughter Jane recalls that this image of racial harmony was deliberately designed.

Ms. JANE STRACKE: My father made sure that there would be three white pall bearers and three black pallbearers. And he did it very consciously. He wanted it to be kind of a lesson.

BARNETT: As the crowd at the Metropolitan Funeral Parlor sat in quiet reflection, the room filled with the sound of Broonzy himself singing a spiritual, taken from the Randle recording session.

(Soundbite of song, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot")

Mr. BROONZY: (Singing) Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home...

BARNETT: Standing at Broonzy's grave in Chicago's Lincoln Cemetery, biographer Bob Riesman says the singer's final encore did not go unnoticed.

Mr. RIESMAN: The reporters for both of the Chicago newspapers used exactly the same phrase, which was: Big Bill Broonzy sang at his own funeral.

BARNETT: At the end of a life that spanned thousands of miles, a range of musical styles and a chameleon-like ability to adapt when others told him not to, Big Bill Broonzy got the last word.

(Soundbite of song, "Swing Low. Sweet Chariot")

Mr. BROONZY: (Singing) ...of angels calling to me, coming for to carry me home.

BARNETT: For NPR News, I'm David C. Barnett.

(Soundbite of song, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot")

Mr. BROONZY: (Singing) Oh, you...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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