Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
The love of music is a powerful thing. It cuts across racial, socio-economic and international boundaries unifying music fans all over the world. Music from Chicago, especially the blues has been a calling card for the city of big shoulders since the mid-twentieth century. Several generations of Chicago blues musicians and record labels have taken the music and its message to the world. From Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Bill Broonzy to Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Koko Taylor and Otis Rush, Chicago based blues artists have made an impact. Now there's a changing of the guard as a younger generation of performers reach middle age and become the face of Chicago blues to the world.
One such artist is Ronnie Baker Brooks, who with his brother Wayne, was raised under the influence of their famous father, internationally renowned blues man, Lonnie Brooks. Lonnie is retired now but the Brooks brothers have taken the blues baton into the next century. When we talked with Ronnie recently before his new record release party and show at SPACE in Evanston, Illinois, it was inevitable that we would speak of the past as well as the present. The near future is bright for Ronnie as well with the release of a fine new album, Times Have Changed, and a starring role at the upcoming 2017 Chicago Blues Festival in June, which will relocate to Millennium Park for the first time. We found a quiet place backstage at SPACE before the show and began to talk.
Greg: You just got back from The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise. How did that go?
Ronnie: It was awesome man. I had the pleasure of spending my fiftieth birthday on a cruise with a bunch of blues musicians and fans so it turned out great!
Greg: If you like what you are doing, that's the main thing.
Ronnie: I love it but I can feel a difference. Where I used to be the young guy in the blues all the time here in Chicago, now you see another generation coming up. I can see the older generation fading away a bit and now it's my generation with another coming. It's an adjustment for me though.
Greg: Do you have the experience of talking to people now who are not as aware of your father, Lonnie Brooks, and are more focused on you?
Ronnie: Most of the people know my dad. It is seldom that I meet those who don't know.
Greg: He cast a long shadow for quite a long time. I have this vintage Capitol Records
compilation from the late Sixties which includes a song from your dad, who was billed back then as Guitar Jr. The name of the song is “Broke 'n Hungry.”
Ronnie: I played that record to death! I grew up on that one and I know it like the back of my hand. That was one of the first songs I tried to sing, “Broke 'n Hungry.”
Greg: It was a long time between that record and the albums he did for Alligator Records years later.
Ronnie: He did some singles in between. There was one for Chess Records, “One Sunny Day” and “Let It All Hang Out”. It was a local hit here in Chicago. Then he got with Alligator and did four tracks on the Living Chicago Blues series of albums before recording his own solo albums, Bayou Lightning, Turn On The Night, Hot Shot and Wound Up Tight.
Greg: Did you play on any of those records?
Ronnie: I played on the live album recorded at BLUES, Etc. in Chicago called Bayou Lightning Strikes. That was the first record I played on in 1987. Thirty years ago. I wasn't technically in his band but I was that night.
Greg: Such a great memory there. Let's talk about your new record now. You released your previous albums on your own label.
Ronnie: Watchdog Records.
Greg: Taken from a song title on your dad's Bayou Lightning album! But now you have an arrangement with a Dutch label, Provogue for your latest. So is this a one-off kind of thing?
Ronnie: We're going to see how it goes. We've got some options and we'll see what this one does. This is the first time I've teamed up with another label. They are from the Netherlands and they have a strong presence in Europe. And are getting a decent one here in the United States.
Greg: I first saw Provogue's name on an album that guitarist Robben Ford put out. Or at least they distributed it because that's the way it is these days, right?
Ronnie: The game has changed. Times have changed! I'm just happy to have some help.
Greg: People love American blues over in Europe.
Ronnie: There is a little more appreciation over there because they know you may not come that often. Here in Chicago you've got tons of musicians and you can say I'm not going out tonight, I'll go out next week and catch something. Over there it's more of an event. I better catch him because I don't know when he's coming back. They treat you pretty good over there. But there's no place like home (laughs).
Greg: It's true and that's gracious of you to say that. But of course we know that African American musicians have been treated better over in Europe for years or at least in the past when things were worse.
Ronnie: Yes, as you know Greg, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and Led Zeppelin were playing what's right around the corner here in America.
Greg: They couldn't wait to visit Chicago and see Chess Records.
Ronnie: They opened up the doors.
Greg: It's been ten years since your last record, The Torch -- passing the torch from one generation to another. But because things have changed so much you're not so focused on doing new albums all the time these days. Yet you have been busy the last ten years.
Ronnie: I've been working man, producing. I produced two or three records. Eddy Clearwater's West Side Strut on Alligator in 2008 and another group out of Holland. I did an album with Eric Davis, a guitar player from Chicago here who got murdered about three years ago. I produced about two or three songs on his album. He was an up and coming figure here, gone too soon. I did a record with Tommy Castro, Magic Dick from the J. Geils Band and Deanna Bogart. We did two or three years of touring together after meeting on a blues cruise. I just had another opportunity to do something like that with Big Head Todd, Billy Branch and Mud Morganfield. We did a disc called Way Down Inside, all Willie Dixon songs and toured from September to December of last year.
Greg: Times Have Changed, your brand new record has the feeling of having been recorded over a number of years rather than just being pushed out in the studio in a relatively short period of time. How many years?
Ronnie: We started the record in January of 2013.
Greg: This album just goes through a lot of different moods. It's not just a straight contemporary blues album. You got your soul and rhythm and blues roots in here. There's your original songs and a lot of cover versions too. It's a lot of fun to listen to. You've got two Joe Tex songs, “Show Me” and “Give The Baby Anything The Baby Wants”.
Ronnie: I grew up on Joe Tex. I couldn't wait to see him on Soul Train.
Greg: To start the album, you've have the legendary Steve Cropper's guitar solo on “Show Me”! Then you go into a solid original song called “Doing Too Much.”
Ronnie: Me and Todd (from Big Head Todd & The Monsters) wrote that one here in Chicago.
Greg: And that's not about somebody trying to do too many good things, right?
Ronnie: No, you're doing too much, you're asking for too much attention.
Greg: On many of these tracks, you are not under any major time constraints. You let it groove for six minutes, six and a half minutes, whatever...
Ronnie: That's (producer) Steve Jordan, man. My first time working with him and he's a groove master (laughs). And he let it go the way it goes.
Greg: Did you just meet Steve?
Ronnie: No, I met Steve when I did the first inaugural for President Obama. It was right after they did the film Cadillac Records (based on Chess Records). Steve was the musical director for that movie. The actor Jeffrey Wright who played Muddy Waters in the film wanted to put on a Chicago theme inaugural party in D.C. Shemekia Copeland was on the show and she connected me with Jeffrey and Steve. They brought Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin and a host of other musicians from Chicago. Steve was the musical director for the party too and that's how I met him.
Greg: Steve goes way back anyway...the Blues Brothers and also Keith Richards' band X-Pensive Winos.
Ronnie: He knew my dad and tried to get my dad on the David Letterman show back in the early Eighties.
Greg: Steve was in the band on the Letterman show.
Ronnie: Yes, the World's Most Dangerous Band with Paul Schaeffer. They were bad too. Steve did John Mayer's records and Buddy Guy, Robert Cray...I gave Steve a CD back then and said I'd love to work with you. Then we ended up doing the next inaugural party! Mayor Emmanuel put on a Chicago show in D.C. Me, Buddy Guy and Keb' Mo. Steve came in for that and that's when we started doing this record. He's a walking encyclopedia. He knows his gear and the music. Who played on a song and what they had for breakfast that day! (laughs).
Greg: Back to the album, your remake of the dusty “Twine Time” is like an instant party!
Ronnie: That was one of the key songs from the whole session for me. We were down in Memphis at Royal Studios, Willie Mitchell's studio and I'm caught up in this dream. Lookin' over here we've got Willie Weeks on bass, all these great musicians, Charles, Leroy and Teenie Hodges from the Hi Rhythm Section on Hammond organ, bass and guitar, and Michael Toles also on guitar. Steve had asked me what cover songs would I like to do. The first one I wanted was “Old Love.” I wasn't thinking when I said it because Steve was playing with Eric Clapton at the time (that the song was originally recorded) and then I said we can't do that song. He was yeah, we can do it.
Greg: Eric and Robert Cray wrote that song together (for Eric's Journeyman album).
Ronnie: And then Steve asked me to name any other songs I'd like to do and I said I love Curtis Mayfield, I would like to do “Give Me Your Love” from Superfly. Angie Stone came in that day and we cut the track. She started out as a rapper and then became a singer. She was on the show Reality Divas. But she was telling me her dad was a blues musician so I was honored to hear that. After that Steve said we need an instrumental. I'm thinking Freddie King or I wrote several instrumentals. But he said nah, we need something broader that people can recognize. How about “Twine Time” by Alvin Cash? I looked at Steve and said, c'mon you're kidding me!
Greg: That's from the Fifties or Sixties, isn't it?
Ronnie: The early Sixties, yeah. I knew Alvin, he used to come down and see Billy Branch on the South Side. That was his thing, what you call your walk on song. But we got into the groove man and Michael Toles was in the studio. I just hit a chord and you could feel it gellin'. Steve was like yeah Michael, keep playing, that's happening! I could see Steve and he could see me but he couldn't tell if I was playing or not. Michael said that's not me, I'm still tuning up! Steve said, Ronnie, that's you? He got up off his drums, came in the booth with me and said, that's what I'm talking about man. Let's groove that. And that just generated another energy for me and made everything go a little easier. To be honest, I was a little intimidated working with Steve Jordan with his history and I'd never recorded at Royal before either.
I feel like I connected with Steve right there and that song “Twine Time” was key.
Greg: You can hear your dad talking at the beginning of this track too.
Ronnie: When we got done recording it, I said to Steve, we gotta get my dad on this because he was probably in the studio when they cut the original. He was friends with Alvin Cash, they used to hang out with Muhammad Ali together. Steve asked, how are we gonna do it since dad was here in Chicago and we were in Memphis. So I called Big Head Todd, he was living here at the time and I asked, get my dad to your house, cut this track and send it back to us. That's how it happened.
Greg: Is your dad's guitar on it?
Ronnie: Yeah, he's playing solo on it. At the end of the song, we are trading off.
Greg: Then we get to the title track, Times Have Changed, with that “The Thrill Is Gone” blues ballad kind of feel. You keep going, putting Al Kapone with the rap on there and it totally works. Perhaps this is not an album for the blues purist who only wants to hear a certain type of thing. It's so cool that you do a variety of styles on this record.
Ronnie: Thank you man. If you listen to all my previous records, all of the elements for this album are there. We just amplified it a little more here.
Greg: Times Have Changed is the title and the obvious centerpiece of the album. How did it come about?
Ronnie: I was on tour with my dad when I wrote it. We were riding down the highway. That was right when computers were becoming more popular and the game was changing as far as emails, texting and downloads. That had an effect on me when I was recording my first record. I saw people making these play lists at home. They took a reggae song and a blues song, then maybe rock, R&B or soul and made a play list to listen to while driving around in their cars. That was my thought back then. That's why I put all these different styles with different sounds into my albums because those are the sounds I grew up listening to and influenced me as well. My dad was a walking jukebox. He had to play whatever was on the jukebox back in the day so what he had to learn, I was listening at home too. That was my concept. I wanted to keep it authentic enough for the blues people but fresh for the younger folks. I previously cut “Times Have Changed” for my “Take Me With You” album. I recorded an acoustic solo version of it. I showed it to Steve and he loved it. I wasn't thinking about strings or a rapper.
Greg: It's got a B.B. King ballad kind of feeling with the strings.
Ronnie: That was the thing that made the song blossom after that for me.
Greg: There's people out there who say they don't like rap or hip hop but when you can fuse those styles together with blues or jazz, it can really work sometimes.
Ronnie: It's like the Hamilton play. Same thing they are doing with that.
Greg: What you are doing with “Times Have Changed” might reach a different generation that you wouldn't get otherwise.
Ronnie: Yeah, times have changed!
Greg: Has Al Kapone been successful as a rapper?
Ronnie: Yes, he's got a huge following and is from Memphis. He's one of the icons down there for rap. Al was on my last record, The Torch, as well.
Greg: “Times Have Changed” is kind of an instant classic. If it could only get the radio exposure and get out there somehow. If you could get it in a film, who knows?
Ronnie: Well, thank you man.
Greg: Then on the heels of the title track, you've got another great sounding extended track, “Long Story Short.”
Ronnie: I wrote that coming from a club here in Chicago. I was hanging out and talking to a friend of mine. It was like, we all got the blues. I could sit here and tell you about them all day long. But to make a long story short, I got the blues! I heard that and it was like, whoa! I immediately picked up my phone and put it in. When I got in the car, going home, I wrote the song.
Greg: Then you get back to Joe Tex but in a very James Brown kind of groove for “Give The Baby Anything The Baby Wants”. Big Head Todd is back with you on this one and so is Eddie Willis, both playing rhythm guitar. Who is Eddie?
Ronnie: He's one of the Funk Brothers from Motown from back in the day. One of the original Funk Brother guitar players and he was in the documentary, Standing In The Shadows of Motown.
Greg: The eighth cut on the album is “Old Love” which begins with an opening vocal from the legendary Bobby Blue Bland. How much does he sing on this track?
Ronnie: He sang the first verse and half of the second. Then I came in with the chorus.
Greg: Bobby was older of course at that point. Was he sick then?
Ronnie: No not yet but five or six months later he passed away. He got sick right after we did that. He was battling for his life in June or July of that year when he finally passed.
Greg: I remember playing Eric Clapton's recording of “Old Love” on the radio from his Journeyman album. A great ballad.
Ronnie: I did that song at a place called Bugsy's in Highland, Indiana where I used to play every Thursday when I first started out. It was a great platform for me to develop, playing with a band and trying out songs. That was one of the songs that I would do and people really gravitated to it. My mother heard it and she was like, ooh I really like that song. So I thought I have to learn that song, my mama likes it and I like it! I said if I ever record any covers, I would like to do this song. And it worked out that we got Bobby to sing it with us.
Greg: Was that easy to get him to do it?
Ronnie: Yes, once he knew Steve Jordan was involved. I'm also friends with Bobby's son, Rod Bland and had met his wife, Willy Mae on a blues cruise I did together with him. And of course, I knew Bobby through my dad for years, they knew each other since the 1950s. He heard I was doing the album with Steve in Memphis, just a hop, skip and a jump away from his house. He said I'll be there and it worked out.
Greg: Now the album's next cut is “Come On Up.”.I'm an old Rascals fan but I didn't notice the title on your album cover at first. Then I heard it and it was like, wow, it's the Rascals. A great song that really gets you going.
Ronnie: The “Come On Up” session was in Nashville. We did half the record in Memphis and half in Nashville at Blackbird Studios. (Original Rascal) Felix Cavaliere lives there and so does Steve Cropper. We also did the Joe Tex songs in Nashville. We got guitarist Lee Roy Parnell to stop by the studio and play as well. A really nice man. I ran into him at Gibson Guitars just lookin' around and he was there.
Greg: That was another connection. And you have the Memphis Horns on the album too. Ben Cauley passed since then. Jim Horn is on here too. He used to be in Hollywood for a long time but he's in Nashville now. The rock and pop music industry has moved there over the years, not so much of it is in L.A. like it used to be.
Ronnie: Keb' Mo is down there too. We wrote a song together “Wham Bam, Thank You Sam (cut number 10). It's about a woman who's got her own money, job and home who says, hey, I don't need you to do all that for me, all I need is “wham bam, thank you Sam and go home!”
Greg: You close the album with an original song, “When I Was We,” an interesting sounding title. What was the inspiration for this?
Ronnie: I was down in Miami years ago and ran into a friend of mine who had just broken up with her boyfriend. And I asked what happened with you. She said, when I was we and I was, whoa, she was thinking of herself when she was thinking of him. And I'm thinking, that's a song there. I went to my hotel room and wrote it. That was a long time ago and I did a demo of it. I cut it for my album Golddigger with Jellybean Johnson who was the producer. It didn't fit with the rest of the songs that we had, so I saved it. I sent it to Steve and he said, I love that song, let's cut it. So that's how that came about.
Greg: So this album, Times Have Changed contains clips and snippets from a number of years that you collected and put together into one really cohesive album. It's kind of a history of soul and R&B combined with the blues.
Ronnie: I wasn't trying to do that but it turned out that way. I knew we were trying something a little different. Why get a new producer and do the same thing I've been doing? I wanted to come with a different approach and see what we could come up with. Even Jellybean who produced the previous record was like, baby brother, it's probably time to try something else. Just to keep you interested and to push you. It definitely pushed me, working with Steve Jordan and gave me a sense of confidence.
Greg: Do you think you guys will work together again?
Ronnie: I hope so.
Greg: It definitely worked, no doubt about it. The album came out January 20th.
Ronnie: Just three days before my birthday!
Greg: It's too soon to see anything on the blues music charts but as we have said, it's so different now anyway.
Ronnie: Times have changed!
Greg: Anything else?
Ronnie: The main thing is the new record. I'm very proud of it. You can pick it up on I-tunes, Amazon or go to my website (see link below). We've got a link to send you where you can get it. This is the first time I've done a vinyl record. I'm very proud.
Greg: Well you should be. It's been in my car CD player for the last week. As a matter of fact, it's still there now. It's great to meet you and thanks for talking to us today.
Ronnie: My pleasure, thanks man.
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Greg Easterling holds down the 12 midnight – 5 a.m. shift on WDRV (97.1 FM) He also hosts American Backroads on WDCB (90.9 FM) Thursdays at 9 p.m.