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Ronnie Baker Brooks
Blues Royalty: The Next Generation
By Linda Cain
Photos: Jennifer Wheeler
Photos: Jennifer Wheeler
Ronnie Baker Brooks is the torch bearer of the blues. The fiery guitarist, singer/songwriter and producer is the son of legendary bluesman Lonnie Brooks, and grew up around many blues greats. A Louisiana bluesman, Lonnie embraced the sounds of rock ’n’ roll in the 1950s and can rightly be considered one of the first blues-rockers; Ronnie was absorbing this new hybrid literally from the cradle, and joined his dad’s touring and recording bands while still in his teens.
Ronnie and brother Wayne spent their youth learning the ropes by performing in their Dad’s band. This apprenticeship gave them the opportunity to perform all over the world and to share the stage with many music legends in all genres. In the pantheon of blues music, the Brooks family is true blues royalty. Ronnie has gone on to establish himself as one of the most exciting and forward-thinking bluesmen of the current generation, pleasing purists with his blues roots while bringing in younger listeners with his blistering guitar work and dynamic stage presence. He has four self-produced CDs on his own label, Watchdog Records.
In 2008, Ronnie Baker Brooks enjoyed an incredible year. Last summer he was featured on three releases that all hit the Blues Top 10 on the Billboard and RMR charts. They are: Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater’s West Side Strut on Alligator Records; Command Performance by The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Revue on Delta Groove Records; and Elvin Bishop’s Grammy-nominated Delta Groove CD, The Blues Rolls On.
Chicago Blues Guide’s Publisher/Managing Editor Linda Cain was delighted to sit down with Ronnie while he was on break from his Valentine’s Day show (February 14, 2009) at Mullen’s in Lisle, IL. A few weeks earlier, Ronnie had celebrated his 42nd birthday in January. And on Inaugural Day, he was in D.C. to perform at a very special, star-studded concert.
Linda Cain for CBG: Happy Belated Birthday! You are now 42-years-young and you have accomplished so much in your career.
Ronnie (RBB): Well I set out two goals when I left my Dad’s band. And that was to take the blues to another level and get it respected like the other genres of music. And take the family legacy with.
CBG: And pass the torch?
RBB: Yeah. But I got a long way to go to get to where my Dad’s got it.
CBG: Well, you’re doing a great job as evidenced by your show here tonight!
RBB: Thank you. So we’re all soldiers. You’re doing what you’re doing, and we’re doing what we’re doing to keep the music alive.
CBG: So, how old were you when you first started working with your Dad?
RBB: Professionally, at 19. I say professionally for when I got paid. But I was playing since I was 6-years-old. My first time on stage was on my 9th birthday. At Pepper’s Hideout in Chicago.
CBG: Were you scared?
RBB: Very. I had a mood ring on (I was on WGN-TV yesterday and told them this story) and it was turning all kinda colors. And I was sittin’ with my Mom. And she said, ‘Ronnie, just relax. Just play like you’re at home’. And when she said that it kinda, relaxed me. And when I got up onstage, I really felt at home. And I wasn’t nervous anymore.
And you know when you’re 9-years-old and playing guitar with a bunch of adults up onstage at a blues club, all you gotta do is just stand there and play a little bit. And I could play a little more than most kids my age ‘cause of my father. He would teach me. And when they saw me play they were like “WOW!” And then I thought I was a superstar (he laughs).
CBG: How old were you when you started your first band?
RBB: Oh, good question. Technically around ’92. But I didn’t leave my Dad until around ’98 . So it’s been about ten years since I went solo, but I’ve had my own band since ’92.
CBG: Last June at the House of Blues during Chicago’s Blues Festival, you played a great show with your Dad, your brother Wayne, Eddy Clearwater, Pinetop Perkins, Lil’ Ed and Big Head Todd all on the bill. At one point this little kid, 8-year-old guitarist Talan Latz, sat in with the band. He was amazing. You seemed to get a huge kick out of watching him. Did that bring back memories?
RBB: It did, it did (he says smiling). It brought back a lot of memories. But the kids today are way more advanced than I was back then. They got videos, Internet, anything they want at the push of a button. But I was lucky to have my Dad bring home certain records and other things and show me. But today, it’s endless what you can do. These kids are just soaking it up like a sponge. Everywhere I go, I run into young kids who are playing guitar and it’s amazing, amazing! They are so talented at an early age and they know what they’re doing. It’s not just guessing; it’s not just showing licks. There’s a kid in Bloomington and he was 12-years-old and he blew me away, just blew me away he was so good. But I can’t recall his name. But he was amazing. How did he get so good that fast?! Kids are quicker now. They have more resources.
CBG: Who, besides your Dad, was your Number One biggest musical influence growing up?
RBB: I got one A, one B, one C, I got one all the way to Z. The first one, of course, was my Dad. But I was intimidated by my father. Very. And he would always say, ‘Naw, you can do it. You can do it.’ And I’d say, ‘But not like you’re doing it.’ And he’d say, ‘But you can do it better.’ And I never believed that. I still don’t. ‘Cause this was my first impression of music, in blues, was my father. And it’s like it can never be reached or touched. But what I can do, what I learned from being around him, is put my own thing to it. There will never be another Lonnie Brooks and there will never be another Buddy Guy, never be another Stevie Ray Vaughan, never be another B.B. King. Never.
But what you can do is take what they had to offer and (combine it with) what you feel and then you can absorb and do it your way. That’s what my father taught me. That’s the Number One thing he taught me. And the first person that really made me know I wanted to play and do this for a living, besides my Dad, was Albert Collins.
He came and sat in with us at the Kingston Mines. I don’t know if you remember the Blues Brothers when they went to the church? And John Belushi says ‘I’ve seen the light!’
That’s how I felt. Exactly like that. It was like, wow, that’s what I wanna do. That’s when the light came on. And I’ve been serious about it ever since.
CBG: I think Albert had that effect on a lot of people.
RBB: Oh, yes, the Master of the Telecaster. But I could name them all Buddy Guy, Luther Allison, Junior Wells was very influential. Jimmy Rogers, who I had a chance to hang out with, and Willie Dixon.
CBG: Did you ever get to see Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy?
RBB: No I never got to see Howlin’ Wolf. I seen Muddy when I was a little baby. I didn’t get the chance to absorb it like I can now. I got to see Muddy at ChicagoFest when it was at Navy Pier and my Dad would take us backstage to see Muddy. B.B. King, Freddie King, Albert King, Taj Mahal. I can go on and on. Eddy Clearwater would come to the house and hang out with us kids and Dad.
CBG: Fast forwarding to the present, tell us how the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Revue (with Tommy Castro, Magic Dick and Deanna Bogart) came together on the Blues Cruise of the same name. You were all on the ship with your own bands and started jamming?
RBB: Yes. Tommy Castro was smart enough to say, ‘Hey let’s take this on the road.’ And he got all the resources together to make it happen. Because it was very expensive to do that. He made it happen. He got it going and we had a bus going around the country. And he said, ‘we should record this every night.’ And we recorded it and Delta Groove put the Command Performance CD out. And we’re doing one more tour with this ensemble. And then we’ll see (what may happen) after that. But it’s Tommy’s baby. And it’s been going pretty good. I enjoy doing it, but I hate to leave my band. ‘Cause I’m going with his band and I’m having so much fun over there. But I know I have to keep my thing going, too.
CBG: Did you hear that Tommy is on Alligator Records now?
RBB: I heard. So that’s good for him, ‘cause Tommy’s a workaholic. And he’s good, he’s got loyal fans and he works his butt off. I knew Tommy back before he went solo. He would come sit in with us when I was with my father. In California, he’d sit in with us every now and then. And when he broke out on his own, we’d jam more.
CBG: So you already had a history of jamming with Tommy.
RBB: Yeah, so when we got out on the cruise, it was natural. ‘Hey, let’s play!’ And he was like ‘man,we need to take this on the road.’ And we did it and it has elevated to what it is now.
CBG: So are you going to get to go back on the boat?
RBB: Yeah, I’m bringing my Dad and brother Wayne. We’re all going to do a show together in October on the Blues Cruise and I’m looking forward to that. It’s not the Legendary R&B Revue; it will be the Brooks Family.
CBG: No one can believe that your Dad is 75. Hopefully you’ll have great longevity like him.
I hope so. He laid the path for me, so all’s I have to do is just follow
what he did.
CBG: You have always put out independent releases. Given your talent, I’m guessing that some major blues labels have come knocking on your door
RBB: Not as much as you’d think. A lotta people say that. But my phone don’t ring.
CBG: But now you can do it yourself.
RBB: That’s the fortunate thing for me, that I’ve been able to do that or I’d have been in trouble. I’m blessed. I had the pleasure of helping my father make a bunch of records. And even before then, when I was younger, I’d sit around and write songs with my father. He showed me how to put a song together, to build it. And he would always develop that with me. That never ends. You never master writing songs, you never master playing music. It’s like a doctor, you’re always practicing. There’s always something that you can do better, that you can continue to grow with. And I was able to write songs and I got a bunch of songs together, and from me being in the studio with my father, I knew how to record it. And my buddy Jellybean Johnson he came along and he said, ‘hey man let me help you, this is good.’
And we cut this album and I had a few labels approach me, but the money I’d spent on the record, they wasn’t willing to give me. So I’d have to either give them the record or I’d lose an investment. But I couldn’t just give it to them. That don’t make business sense.
So I just took a chance and just going out there (playing) and keeping up with my mailing list. And keeping the fans with product and I’ve been able to survive so far.
Of course, if I had ‘the machine’ behind me, like certain artists, I’d probably be a lot further.
CBG: Alligator, for example, does a great job of promoting their artists.
RBB: I’ve been around Bruce Iglauer all my life and I learned a lot from being around that cat. But we never talked about doing a record.
CBG: But you did do a record for them in a way, you produced Eddy Clearwater’s new CD.
RBB: I did the record first and then Eddy shopped it. I didn’t know where he was going with it. I did the record to work with Eddy.
CBG: You did a great job with it and you brought out the best in Eddy.
RBB: It was fun. And I was telling Eddy when we were finished, ‘Man, no matter what happens with this record, if it sells five copies, if it sells one copy, I had a ball doing this and nobody can take this away from us!’ Those moments we had in his basement, writin’ them songs, the moments we had in the studio. Man, it was great. I didn’t want it to end. It was so much fun. Hopefully we can do it again. Hopefully, hopefully.
CBG: When can fans expect a new CD from you?
RBB: Good question. I’m gonna wait a little bit, ‘cause I’m comin’ off of Eddy’s record, I’m comin’ off of Command Performance, the live record (with Legendary R&B Revue), I’m on Elvin Bishop’s Grammy-nominated record The Blues Rolls On, I did a song on there. I’m gonna wait a little bit and hopefully, this time next year, I’ll have something.
CBG: Do you have a lot of songs ready?
RBB: I got a bunch of songs. I’m always writing. Even on the road, I’m writing. But I’m gonna wait a bit and see what happens with the economy. When I feel it, it will come out. My Dad always said, ‘if you don’t know what to do, don’t do nothing.’
CBG: When is your Dad going to come out with a new CD?
RBB: We’ve been talking about that and we’ve got a bunch of songs we’ve written together, so if you don’t know what to do, just wait. So I’m gonna wait.
CBG: It’s not a good time to invest money in anything.
RBB: I’ve been having a lot of fans that have been supporting me. But everybody’s going through something right now. But maybe the music will heal them. ‘Cause the blues always heals you, man. And hopefully next year, long story short.
CBG: I heard from your agent, Casey, that you performed at an inaugural party in Washington, D.C. with a lot of famous people. Please tell us about it.
RBB: The guy that played Muddy Waters in Cadillac Records, Jeffrey Wright, he got in contact with Shemekia Copeland. And Shemekia asked me if I’d like to go to D.C., ‘cause they are trying to put this inaugural party together, kind of at the last minute. And I said, ‘Of course, I’d love to be there on this historic day and play.’
And Jeffrey Wright and his people put it together. And they got me, Shemekia, Buddy Guy, Kim Wilson, Hubert Sumlin, Steve Jordan, Larry Taylor, Barrelhouse Chuck, Eddie Taylor, Jr., and the guitarist Billy Flynn.
They got us all in D.C. on the day of the Inaugural. And so many celebrities were there. Robert DeNiro, Rosie O’Donnell, Jackson Browne, Tom Waits, Tim Robbins .
We started playing and Jackson Browne came up on stage and starting playing with us!
And that’s how that happened. We played at an art gallery. They made us a stage. They had Obama’s pictures that people had painted all over the place. To be in that town, and to feel that energy on the day of the inaugural, Jan. 20, 2009. I had a great experience. It’s something I’ll probably never see again.
CBG: That’s something to tell the grandchildren about!
To read Part 1 of Ronnie's interview,
To read Part 1 of Ronnie's interview, click HERE