Eric Clapton says his main influence was Big Bill Broonzy.
So does Keith Richards. So does Ronnie Woods.
So does Ray Davies. So does Rory Gallaher.
The legendary Mississippi blues man influenced a generation of young English musicians.
Authentic down home Delta guitar played by a man who’d spent his life picking cotton, being mistreated, sitting on a porch singing the blues.
The only thing is, it isn’t true.
Bill Broonzy was a fine guitarist.
But he wasn’t born in Mississippi in 1893, as he claimed.
He was born in Arkansas ten years later.
And he didn’t grow up learning to play guitar on a cotton farm.
He learned guitar in 1920, when he moved to Chicago.
In Chicago he learned every variation of contemporary musical styles.
Ragtime to Jazz, country to city blues, raunchy Hokum blues to spiritual music.
But what changed the Chicago music scene was the electric guitar.
Suddenly a young generation of black musicians found they could play faster and louder, over the noise in the clubs.
So people could get up and dance and have a good time.
And the younger black generation discovered a new kind of blues.
Meanwhile, a different audience had discovered the old kind of blues.
A white audience.
For the whites, the blues was an authentic part of American folk music.
But to be authentic it had to be acoustic, not electric.
Bill Broonzy found white people would pay good money to hear old-fashioned acoustic blues.
But young blacks in Chicago didn’t want that kind of music.
It was the sound of the past, it was about dirt roads and bare feet, misery and poverty.
They wanted to have a good time.
They wanted to wear nice clothes, dance and have fun.
They wanted modern, upbeat, electric, big-city blues.
Muddy Walters, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, Howling Wolf, John Lee Hooker, B. B. King.
In fact, Little Walter said to Bill Broonzy “You try playing them sad old-timey blues in these joints they’ll throw you out”.
But Bill Broonzy spotted a gap in the market.
He knew an audience that preferred ‘them sad, old-timey blues”.
And he began touring, not just the USA, but all over Europe.
Playing to white audiences who’d never heard the blues.
And he could market himself as Big Bill Broonzy the last of the authentic Delta bluesmen.
And he stopped playing in a group, with piano, drums and horns.
And he began playing his acoustic guitar on stage, alone.
And he stopped wearing his snappy suits and ties on stage.
And he became so successful, an entire generation of young English musicians learned ‘authentic Delta blues guitar’ from Big Bill Broonzy.
Sure Bill Broonzy was a fine musician.
But he was also a marketing man.
He knew, if the product doesn’t fit the market, don’t change the product, change the market.