Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
A CONVERSATION WITH LONNIE BROOKS
By Linda Cain
Photos: Jennifer Noble
Photos: Jennifer Noble
Lonnie Brooks, like fellow septuagenarian blues guitarist Buddy Guy, seems ageless. His talented son Ronnie Baker Brooks is fond of saying during his own shows: “My Daddy Lonnie Brooks (waits to hear applause) is 78 years old, looks like he’s 58 and acts like he’s 28!”
In May 2010, Lonnie Brooks was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame during a grand ceremony in Memphis. The honor was one of many highlights in a career that has spanned six decades! From Louisiana’s Cajun country to the roadhouses of Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas to the rough and rowdy urban blues bars of Chicago’s West Side, Brooks has been performing his unique blend of rock’n’roll, swampy grooves, Texas rhythms and Chicago blues. Known for his exciting showmanship, along with his powerful, soulful voice and his creative, versatile guitar stylings, Brooks is an international blues star and has performed the world over countless times.
His 1979 album on Alligator Records, Bayou Lightning, won him the prestigious Grand Prix du Disque Award from the 1980 Montreux Jazz Festival in France. A 1982 trip to Germany resulted in an hour-long Lonnie Brooks TV special. Country artist Roy Clark landed him an appearance on the popular TV show Hee Haw. He also performed in the film Blues Brothers 2000 with Dan Aykroyd and John Goodman.
He will perform at the Prairie Center for the Arts in Schaumburg, IL on October 6, 2012. Lonnie will be joined by his sons Wayne Baker Brooks and Ronnie Baker Brooks for an evening with The Brooks Family Blue Dynasty. Tickets are $38 - $40.
Chicago Blues Guide’s Managing Editor Linda Cain had a chance to chat with Lonnie Brooks at House of Blues in Chicago while waiting to hear B.B. King perform live.
House of Blues is playing one of Lonnie’s old recordings over the sound system as we begin our conversation. He is delighted and sings along. Lonnie seems surprised they would play his music.
Q – Well, you were in the “Blues Bros 2000” movie, so why wouldn’t they want to play your music? Are there any Lonnie Brooks sculptures or memorabilia hanging in this Chicago House of Blues?
No, but when they first opened it up, I played with the Blues Brothers here. They flew me in from New York. I was doing a show there and was going to take the bus home, but they said, “no get on a plane, ‘cause we need you here now”.
Q - Was John Belushi alive then?
No. It was when House of Blues here first opened. It was Dan Aykroyd and all of them. And then we went out to other places, ‘cause Dan likes to sit in. He loves music.
Q - So you’ve known B.B. King, since when?
Q - Did you ever tour with him?
About ’56, I used to go out with him.
Q - Have you always kept in touch with him?
Oh, yeah. I’ve been on tours with him since I’ve been in Chicago.
Q - Did you see his show last night? How’s he doing?
Oh, yeah. He’s doing great. This cat is, he’s, uh, a fun guy. He got all his ducks in row, here. He know how to talk to people. I said to him last night that he really knows how to please people, that he’s a charmer. He could charm anybody. And he can tell jokes, he’s real good with jokes. And he stayed on me a lot last night. We haven’t seen each other for a while.
Q - It’s nice that he’s still going at 86!
I hope I can be going when I’m 86, like that
Q - Oh, I think you will.
Well, I’m gonna try. I hope I can play til I’m 100!
Q - Can we go for a trip in the way-back machine? Can you remember what was some of the first music you ever heard as a child?
Lightnin’ Hopkins. John Lee Hooker. Muddy Waters.
Q - How old were you then?
I was a small kid when I first started listening to the blues. I don’t remember all the names. Back then it was mostly piano blues.
Q - Was this on records or radio?
No, my mother used to take us to our grandfather’s. And they would go out and listen to this piano blues player. So what he did, he came over to the house because he kinda liked one of my mother’s sisters. I can’t remember his name. And they had a piano there and he started playing with my grandfather, he was a banjo player.
Q - Did they play blues or country?
Well he played blues. My grandfather played a little of everything. Really, his type of music was like that New Orleans jazz type stuff.
Q - And this was in Louisiana. Were you in a town or the country?
Country! I was 11 years old ‘fore I went to a city.
I come back with a stiff neck. My dad took us down in a wagon, and I’m looking at the buildings, and I had never seen a building that high before. I’m looking at the buildings and my neck was stiff from looking up. The only cities I saw was cities in books, you know. I didn’t know that could be real!
Q - What city was it?
Opelousas. It was about 21, 22 miles from where we was livin’. Cause we was on a farm.
Q - That’s not that far.
But that was a long time riding in a (horse-drawn) wagon. But he had a truck, too. But back then, walking wasn’t so bad for people, cause that’s all they did. Now, since we got something to ride in, it only seemed like 2, 3 miles. But back then we thought it was a long way off, ‘cause you had to walk it.
Now we was livin,’ off from the highway, which was a gravel road a half-mile away from the house. And we used to hear the ice cream truck, which was 2, 3 miles away. And we would run all the way there. Back when I was a kid, I could run a mile without stoppin’. And that’s the first time I heard Lightnin’ Hopkins. You know today how the ice cream trucks play music?
Q - Yeah. Usually it’s “Turkey in the Straw”.
Well they used to play blues on this one.
Q - The first time you heard Lightnin’ Hopkins was from an ice cream truck?
Yeah. I tell that story a lot in interviews. But this is something I wanted to do my whole life, since I was a baby.
Q - Play music?
Yeah. My mom told me, after I started playing music: ‘I knew you were going to be a musician, because every time my father would play his banjo, you’d start kickin’ in my stomach.’ And she said that when I would be crying and my grandfather would start playing the banjo, I would stop cryin’ and listen to the music.
Q - Some people do play music for their unborn babies to listen to inside of Mom.
I think it’s true, that babies can hear music and when they’re born, it comes back to them.
Q - I know that Lonnie Brooks isn’t your birth name. (His real name is Lee Baker, Jr.). I was wondering if you got the idea for your stage name from Lonnie Johnson, because you liked his music a lot?
No, I knew of him, cause a lot of people called me Lonnie Johnson. My real name is Lee. My mother named me after my father and she would call me Little Lee. And those people down there, they’re Creole people, you know. And they would talk fast and they would say Lee Lee. And then from Lee Lee to Leenny. They were French speaking. I used to get in fights about it, and it would make me mad. I didn’t want to be Lenny. So I thought about it. I was fixing to do a record with a friend of mine, who at that time, they called him Billy The Kidd Emerson and he played piano. He said Guitar Junior isn‘t a name and that I should change the name. Well since I was in Chicago and they had another Guitar Junior, I changed it.
I thought about this lady who used to take care of me when my mother would go to work. Her name was Bertha Brooks. And I thought she treated me better than my mother. She didn’t have no boys, she had nothing but girls and I was her pet.
Q - You recently recorded a new CD, co-produced by Tom Hambridge. What can you tell us about that?
I produced it and put up the money myself. Ronnie and Wayne both helped me with it. Ronnie is playing on one (song) and Wayne is playing on one. And I did one of Wayne’s songs. And he played solo on it, on guitar. And Ronnie plays a solo on one that we worked out together a long time ago.
Q - You have very talented sons.
Oh, yeah. They’re more talented than I am. At least they can handle a computer better than me. All I can do is play games on it.
Q - Where did you record the CD?
In Nashville. Got the Nashville boys (studio musicians) on it. Boy, they’re great! Whew! They play so good I wish I could take ‘em on the road with me.
Lonnie Brooks did not take the Nashville cats on the road with him. However, he did succeed in forming the Brooks Family Blues Dynasty with his sons Ronnie and Wayne. Both sons are talented, versatile artists with their own bands and careers, who learned their craft by apprenticing with their Dad. Together, they are the First Family of the Blues and have taken their act on the road to prestigious international festivals and are repeat performers on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise.
Meanwhile Lonnie is shopping his CD to record labels, with no release date as of yet, as fans eagerly await his first solo album since Roadhouse Rules in 1997.
Stay tuned…Chicago Blues Guide will continue the conversation with Lonnie Brooks in the near future.