Featured Interview – Ronnie Baker Brooks

ronnie baker brooks photo 1Chicago bluesman Ronnie Baker Brooks’ fourth solo album, his first in 10 years, is called Times Have Changed. It was produced Steve Jordan whose credits include Keith Richards, Neil Young and The Blues Brothers. The title cut features 11 musicians on everything from a Hammond organ to viola, violin and cello. This big production number leads into a street smart rap by Chicago’s Al Kapone who lays it down: “You use to have to date a woman for a minute/But she pop a pill she gone let you go up in it/ One night stands is a normal thang.”

Times have indeed changed.

But change itself is timeless. Ronnie’s background includes three smoking guitar CD extravaganzas, tours and recording sessions with his father, Lonnie Brooks, and a well-earned reputation for heart wrenching guitar solos that bleed all over the floor.

His dad, now 83 and retired, told me in 1995: “I play blues, country, zydeco, rock’n roll, everything.” His advice to Ronnie? “I talk to him like I talk to anybody ’cause things have changed so much. I tell him be a good guitar player, but when you get ready to record, make sure you’re going to travel the same road all the time for a while. You gotta jump on the train and stay on that sucker because whatever you cut first, that’s what the people are looking for you to be. If you cut rock and roll, they looking for you to be a rock and roll player, if that’s your first record. If you play a blues, then you’re stuck with blues. You jump out of that field if you want to, but they looking for that first record they heard you on.”

Times change, but change is timeless.

Lonnie always felt his own lack of stylistic focus hurt him in the market place. His first single under the name Guitar Junior was a rocker “Family Rules” in 1957. At the time he also played zydeco with Clifton Chenier. “I think I was the first black person to cut a country tune (“Pick Me Up on Your Way Down” in 1957). I know I did it before Ray Charles and Charlie Pride,” he told me. Moving to Chicago in 1959, he changed his name to Lonnie Brooks and toured with Jimmy Reed and Sam Cooke. By 1996 he’d cut nine solo LPs for Alligator, but also appeared on the country TV show “Hee Haw” with Roy Clark in 1981.

The oldest of 12 children, Ronnie’s Dad Lonnie got his love of music from his granddad, Lonnie’s great grandfather. “He was the only person who played music in my family. He played banjo,” explained Lonnie. That’s why I’m playing. I wanted to be like my grandfather. He was such a happy go lucky man. He’d get up early in the morning. He was a hunter and a trapper and a musician. That’s how he made his living. He had killed one of these ’bout a hundred-year-old rattlesnakes, and he took the skin and filled it up with meal, dried it out and hung it up in the house.

“I wouldn’t go through that door where that thing was hanging. I was so scared of snakes. One of the things he did was say, ’Come on! I’m gonna play some music for you.’ I had never heard him play. I probably heard him back when I was a baby, but I remember back when I was about two years old, I knew a snake when I seed it. Then, he started playing this music. It sounded strange. Back then, they had Gramophones, record players. I’m looking at the person playing it, and I fell in love with the sound. Then, after my grandmother died, he moved in with us, and then I had a chance to hear music every day. He was playing this New Orleans kind of stuff, New Orleans jazz on the banjo.”

ronnie baker brooks photo 2Times change, but change is timeless.

Like his dad, Ronnie’s introduction to music was as a toddler. “One thing I remember was Theresa’s Lounge here in Chicago. I was too young to go in there, and my dad would take me and park the car right in front of the door at Theresa’s, and I would sit in the car, man, and just dream and wish I was in there. I mean, I would be fascinated with this vibe that was coming out the door.

“The doorman would always watch me. My dad would say, ‘Watch my boy. I’m coming in here for a minute,’ and I would say, ‘One day I’m gonna get in that club, man. One day I’m gonna be in there and feel it and see it, and draw up all that energy and all that love that was coming out that door, man. All that vibe!’ And my dad exposed me to this, and when I started to write my own material, all these elements were there growing up.”

When Ronnie internalized the full impact of his father’s talent, he wasn’t thinking about whether the music was blues or country, black or white, timely or timeless. It was about an intensity that was palpable. He was 12 years old, “I didn’t know the impact my father had until I got to see him live at the Chicago Blues Fest. I was old enough to go and see him play in front of a huge crowd. Now, I saw him at Pepper’s Hideout when I was nine. It was a small club, but it was intimate, but when you see someone play at a festival, you got 10,000, 20,000 people moving. It was a huge difference for me. So, I didn’t know the impact my father had, let alone Bobby Bland and Wayne Bennett and all these guys. It really intimidated me to be honest. It was like I can’t do that. I wanna play some basketball.

“When I saw my dad play at the Chicago Blues Fest in front of all these thousands of people, (I’d say to myself) ‘I can’t do that.’ And my dad would always say, ‘Yes, you can. You can be better. You can be better than that’ ’cause he would always instill that confidence in us. I’m fascinated by “Lonnie Brooks,” man. Look, I see my father pull a rabbit out of his hat, man, and make it work many times when all odds was against him, and in the back of my mind, (I would think) I could never do that, but all the time he was preparing me for this.

“The blues sometimes you gotta go through it to get to it.”

Times change, but change is timeless.

“I had 17 songs on The Torch (his last album released in 2006) which is way too many songs. (Producer) Steve (Jordan) wanted some songs (on the new album) that I may have recorded. So, I sent him some stuff that was unreleased. And he heard “The Times Have Changed.” ‘Like, man, let’s do that one.’ So, I was thinking acoustic. He’s like, ‘No, I’m gonna use the band, and I got some ideas,’ and we got to the studio. He added some strings on it. He added the band on it. He added Al Kapone, and when we got through with it, it was like, ‘Whoa! Whoa!’ And it was just so appropriate now, today, for what was going on.”

Today’s core blues audience can react as viscerally to hip-hop as Dylan’s folk fans did when he plugged in. Dylan’s hard core constituency felt violated. After all, folk music was serious. Rock and roll was not. It was the old guard against the new. Many of today’s blues fans have a similar response to hip-hop. They feel that hip-hop pushes forward against the legacy and history of the blues. When you know Ronnie Baker Brooks’ background, you can understand why such thinking is wrong headed.

“Hip-hop helped me get through what I was getting through, and I just tie that to what I’m doing because that’s what I feel, and I truly believe what comes from the heart reaches the heart, and if you’re coming from the heart with a positive attitude, then you’re gonna touch some people. Even sometimes if you come up with a negative attitude, you’re gonna touch some people because that’s the power of music, but I try to keep it on the positive tip, and what I can feel in my heart. I’m not just gonna throw some hip-hop on it because even working with Steve Jordan, man, I had to connect musically. I didn’t wanna just do it because of his name. I didn’t want to do it because it’s Bobby Bland or Felix Cavalieri (who both appear on Times Have Changed.) I wanted to connect some way musically with these (guys) even though they are iconic musicians. They’re Hall of Famers and that could be a little intimidating, but I have to thank my father for giving me that confidence to work with them.”

ronnie baker brooks photo 3Times change, but change is timeless.

It was more difficult for Ronnie to give up his effects pedals that had been a kind of a comfort blanket. “Years ago, my dad’s driver, Jesse – he’s no longer with us. He passed away last year. We were somewhere in San Francisco, and I went and sat in with some friends of mine. Jesse was with me and he was like – they didn’t give me any pedals or anything. I just went straight into the amp. He told me – this always rings in my head when this happened on my record, he said, ‘Ronnie, you need to put them damn pedals down and play just like you played that night. I can feel every note you play. It was soulful, man.’ I said, ‘Come on, Jesse,’ ’cause at the time pedals was huge and still is and then eventually when I left Dad’s band I was doing a three-piece. I would use pedals of different colors to keep people’s interest instead of having one tone forced down their throat. So, I would use all the different colors, and tones for different songs.

“And when I got to Memphis (to record the new album) I had my bus driver bring all my gear down, and we pulled down amps and guitars and pedal boards. I had several different pedal boards, and Steve was like, ‘You can leave those pedal boards right there. You don’t need ’em. All I need you to do is to plug into the amp and play.’ And that was a little adjusting mentally. Then, I reverted back to Jesse. ‘Hey, man. You don’t need those pedals, man. Just play the blues, man. You could hear every note you’re playing, and I could feel it, every note you’re playing.’

“And that’s what gave me the confidence to say, ‘Ok, alright. I don’t need the pedals. I think if you can connect with the pedals and manipulate to where you feel what is in your head, then it’s worth using. If you’re chasing a sound that someone else did, or you’re trying to chase something you’re not familiar with, that’s when they can become a problem. Or you use it too much, It’s just my personal opinion. You use it too much to where you force it down the people’s throat.”

Times change, but change is timeless.

“I’m trying to learn to get better, and I trusted Steve. That was the key. Those were the key things for the whole session. There are some people that are so stuck with what they’re doing, they’re like, ‘No, I’m not doing that.’ It may work for them, I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but for me I was open enough to say, “I gotta trust this guy ’cause he got a track record. and whatever he threw at me, I gave it a shot. Gave it a shot, man. And I found myself within that. So, that helped me today to be the musician I am today.”

From Joe Tex’s “Show Me” with Stax guitarist Steve Cropper to The Rascals’ “Come On Up” with Felix Cavalieri on keyboards, from Robert Cray’s “Old Love” featuring Bobby Blue Bland’s last recorded vocals to Curtis Mayfield’s “Give Me Your Love (Love Song),” the new CD was pushing Ronnie in directions that were over the top even by his dad’s standards. The only consistent thread running through the 11 cuts is Ronnie’s heart felt vocals and sparkling guitar runs. And when Steve Jordan suggested “Twine Time,” Ronnie at first found that a hard pill to swallow. It has been a huge crowd pleaser in black Chicago clubs in 1965, two years before Ronnie was born.

“When Alvin Cash (and The Crawlers) would come in and do that “Twine Time,” man, the crowd would go nuts, and I was so caught up on the traditional thing, so when Steve said, “Twine Time,” I said, ‘Come on. Are you serious?’ He said, ‘No, let’s do “Twine Time,”’ and once we started, the guitarist for Cindi Lauper – he’s the rhythm guitarist (Michael Toles) on that track with me – he was tuning up. So, it was just me and Steve and Willie Weeks grooving it. And Charles Hodges on keyboards. We’re grooving it, and trying to get a tempo.

“We’re trying to get an arrangement, and I just hit this chord, (He scats) And Steve’s like, ‘Yeah, Michael, let’s do that,’ and Michael said, ‘That ain’t me!’ And Steve says, ‘Ronnie, is that you playing that?’ He couldn’t see me. He could only see my head. He couldn’t see if I was playing. I said, ‘Yeah, that was me.’ He got up off the drums and came in the booth with me and said, ‘Man, that’s what I’m talking about. That is the shit. That’s what I’m talking about,’ and that just elevated the whole CD for me, man, because I felt like I connected with Steve.

ronnie baker brooks photo 4“That song “Twine Time” was the key to that whole session for me, because I felt the connection with Steve and the band totally. Of course, I felt it coming in, but I mean it solidified it. Like, now, let’s do it, man. Let’s go. And my confidence level went up and the spirit of the whole session went up after that for me.”

Times change, but change is timeless.

“My father always told me, you can never beat nobody being them. Ain’t nobody can ever beat you being yourself. If you try to be like Bobby Bland, it’s not gonna happen. You’re gonna lose. You’re gonna look stupid. I have to thank Steve Jordan because he had the sense and the knowhow to implement all that. He could see where I was coming from, and he knew where Bobby (Bland) was coming from. He knew where Felix Cavalieri was coming from. He knew where Steve Cropper was coming from.

“So, he was more so the guy that finessed the atmosphere to where I could be productive and they could be productive, where I wasn’t intimidated. I wasn’t even though I was initially to be honest, but I always say that experience with my father helped me pull it together, say, hey, man. This is a great opportunity. Let’s have some fun with this. Do what you can do and put your heart and soul in it, and the people will feel that, and that’s what I try to do with every record I do, man.

“I always give credit back to my dad as far as it all started with Dad and the people he allows me to meet, the music that he presented us as kids, listening around the household, me and my brother Wayne Baker Brooks. We heard this music. It’s instilled in us as kids, man, when we were in our mom’s stomach.

“All this stuff’s been around us all of our lives, and then him allowing me to go on the road and meet with his friends, hang out with some of the world’s greatest. I mean the world’s greatest and rub shoulders with them, pick their brains. I always gravitated to it, and I remember begging my dad to take me to see Son Seals, taking me to see B. B. King, taking me to see Bobby Bland and all those people when I was a kid.”

Lonnie Brooks in 1995: “I got two great kids that travel with me (Ronnie and his brother Wayne Baker Brooks.) They look after me like I used to look after them. They love me and they make sure I don’t get into any trouble. They watch over me.”

Times change, but change is timeless.

Visit Ronnie’s website at: www.ronniebakerbrooks.com/

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