Big Bill Broonzy in France and England

Big Bill Broonzy in France and England

by Ron Sweetman

copyright © 2003 Ron Sweetman

In August 1951 I was on holiday with my parents in Menton in the south of France.

I had just finished high school and had the summer free until I started my professional studies in September, but was of course subsisting on whatever pocket money I could wheedle out of my father, so funds were tight. I had been collecting jazz and blues records for about four years, but my choice was limited to what was available in England, and what I could afford.

Wandering through the streets of Menton, I was amazed to see a flyer announcing a concert at the Grand Casino in Menton by Big Bill Broonzy on Wednesday August 22nd. I had read about Big Bill in magazines and books, but none of his recordings had been issued in England, so I had only a vague idea of what to expect. My father had enthused about the great black artists he had heard in Paris in the '20s and '30s, so it was not too difficult to get him to finance my attendance at the concert. Bill on guitar and vocals was, according to the flyer, accompanied by Merrill Stepter (trumpet), Guy Lafitte (tenor sax), Andre Persiany (piano), Georges Hadjo (bass) and Wallace Bishop (drums), although I have no memory of Stepter being present. The instrumentation was not dissimilar to the groups Big Bill had been recording with in recent years in the United States, but because of my unfamiliarity with these recordings, I was rather surprised that his accompanists were so numerous and so sophisticated. He started the concert with "In the Evening" and did two full sets, to great acclaim from the audience.

Inspired by this concert, I prevailed upon my parents to give me permission to hitchhike the next evening along the coast to Juan-les-Pins, where Sidney Bechet was playing his summer season at the Vieux Colombier. Arriving in Jean-les-Pins, I located the club and bought an inexpensive supper nearby. Emerging from the restaurant, I spied Sidney Bechet sitting in a cafe near the club, talking to another Afro-American. Pulling from my shirt a photo of Bechet, I approached him, and asked him to sign it, which he graciously did. He introduced me to his companion Phil Moore, musician and arranger, and invited me to sit with them. Bechet was expounding on the innate racism of American and European society, pointing out that every war ongoing at that time around the world pitted white people against the non-white inhabitants of whatever country they were fighting in. I had never taken such a worldview, but was impressed at the time, and have seen much more evidence of this theory over the last 50 years.

As they talked, and I listened, a familiar figure loomed into view -- a tall Afro-American clutching a guitar case. I was the first to recognize Big Bill, and he joined us briefly at the table before he and Sidney left for the club. Phil Moore and I talked a little longer before I left for the club. I had enough money to pay the cover charge, but my scrawny appearance and backpack alerted the waiters, and I was shown to a minute table well at the back of the club. Bechet and his accompanying band played the first set, and then he announced the presence of Big Bill, and invited him to come up to the stage and play. As I recall, Bill played unaccompanied; the musicians no doubt welcoming a prolonged drinks break. Again, he started with "In the Evening."

That night, a family of English tourists, camping in the mountains, was murdered and their possessions stolen. Searching for suspects in the early morning, the police stopped a young man walking along the road between Juan-les-Pins and Menton. When questioned about his movements, he said he had been in Juan listening to Sidney Bechet. Asked for proof of his alibi, he pulled from his shirt a photo autographed by Bechet, and the police let him go.

On the afternoon of Sunday February 24th, 1952, Big Bill Broonzy appeared at the Cambridge Theatre in London. The program photo showed him in working clothes, a cigarette in his mouth, and promised "A Programme of Blues, Folk Songs and Ballads." For some numbers he was accompanied by the Crane River Jazz Band, described as "Britain's foremost revivalist band." The point I am making is that while in France Bill was presented in a setting that mirrored his current urban-style activities in the United States, in England he was presented as the unsophisticated rural artist found on his earliest recordings.

The show opened with a set by the Crane River Jazz Band (Sonny Morris, trumpet; Ray Orpwood, trombone; Monty Sunshine, clarinet; Phil Dearce, piano; Len Page, banjo; Julian Davies, bass; Pete Appleby, drums), which included "All the Girls Like the Way I Drive," "Bugle Boy March," "I'm Travellin'", "Maryland, My Maryland" and "Spicey Advice."

After a brief intermission, Bill came on stage in a suit and tie (not overalls) with his guitar, a solitary figure on a vast and imposing stage, but his presence galvanized the audience, whom he held in the palm of his hand throughout the afternoon. Bill sang "In the Evening," "Just A Dream," "Keep Your Hands Off Her," "Black, Brown and White," "Kansas City Blues," "Back Water Blues," "Crawdad Song," "John Henry," "Blue Tail Fly," "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've SeenÓ and "When the Saints Go Marching In" as solos. He was joined by the Crane River Jazz Band on "Louise, Louise," "How Long, How Long," "Mama Don't Allow It" and "Down By the Riverside."

After the concert my friend Ron Glass and I somehow managed to infiltrate backstage, where Bill obligingly posed for some photos by Ron Glass, until one of the Wilcox brothers chased us out, claiming that he had a "copyright" on all photos of Big Bill.

At the end of his French tour Big Bill recorded for the French Vogue label in Paris in September 1951, and that's how I was able to buy my first recording by Big Bill Broonzy.

Ron Sweetman broadcasts his radio program In A Mellow Tone on CKCU every Wednesday from 9:00 to 11:00pm at 93.1FM in Ottawa and around the world on the Internet at

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David Whiteis
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January 30, 04


I hadn't been aware that Big Bill ever played any of his urban repertoire when he was overseas; my impression has always been that he'd successfully marketed himself as a folkie to folks on "that side" of the water, and he maintained that persona (onstage, at least) while he was there.

I wonder if there are any recordings of him performing in any of the contexts you mention. M'Goodnes, Big Bill in concert with Bechet -- the mind reels!!!

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