Featured Interview – Ronnie Baker Brooks

In the corporate world of big business, just being the offspring of a member of the board at a Fortune 500 company can put a person on the fast track to success.

It can be like getting handed the keys to the kingdom without ever putting out any sweat.

The same can also be true in the world of music and entertainment, too, where being the child of a famous musician or actor can make one’s pathway to stardom much quicker and much easier.

However, that’s not the way Chicago blues great Lonnie Brooks operates.

It didn’t matter whether Wayne and Ronnie Baker Brooks were his sons or not.

And how good they could play the guitar or sing as teenagers didn’t factor much in the equation, either.

If they were going to follow in Lonnie’s footsteps, they were going to do so by literally taking things one step at a time.

“When I first decided to take this on as a career, my dad said, ‘the first thing you have to do is be really serious this is what you want to do,’” said Ronnie Baker Brooks. “So he started me and Wayne out setting up the stage, tearing down the stage, carrying equipment, tuning guitars – I was doing everything but playing. He wanted me to see the whole thing, not just the star stuff and the glamour. And before he gave me the opportunity to get on stage and play, that’s what I had to go through. It was like going to school. And then once I got on stage, it made my appreciation that much stronger.”

And just because he had graduated from the ‘Lonnie Brooks School of the Blues,’ that didn’t mean that young Ronnie Baker Brooks was given full carte blanche once his boots finally did hit the bandstand.

“He started me off by letting me play one song a night and then after that I worked my way up to two,” Brooks said. “But you know, at that time I really wasn’t ready to go full-bore up there, but my father saw my hunger and my passion. Once I started playing more and more was when I started to feel the pressure of getting better. I didn’t want people to think the only reason I was up on stage was because my dad was Lonnie Brooks. I didn’t want that pressure on him. So I worked my butt off. I learned the songs inside and outside. And once I proved to myself that I belonged up there, I became comfortable and confident. Then it doesn’t matter what other people think. I wanted to continue to make the Brooks legacy grow.”

Ronnie Baker Brooks’ tutelage on how to handle the bright spotlights of the stage was not just confined to the teachings of his dad.

He also received a few insightful words of wisdom from The Iceman.“The man that really put the gasoline on the fire for me, other than my father, was Albert Collins,” Brooks said. “This was around the time when I was trying to prove myself to myself and get out of that shell of being Lonnie Brooks’ son and all that pressure. I would frown or get mad at myself when I made a mistake playing. But Albert pulled me to the side and said, ‘look man, I know you want to succeed, but quit frowning when you make a mistake. Every musician makes a mistake if they keep trying. But if you smile when you make a mistake, other people don’t know that you’ve made a mistake. Don’t give off the vibe that you’re mad. Smile and have a good time with it.’ And that changed my whole thought process. He just inspired so much confidence in me. He told me, ‘you’re not going to be like your dad, be like yourself.’”

Though it’s been a few years since his last solo CD hit store shelves – 2006’s The Torch, Brooks has definitely not been on any kind of an extended vacation from the world of the blues. He’s been busier than a bartender on payday, sliding into the producer’s chair for a host of artists, while also lending his guitar and vocals to a slew of other projects.

In addition to working on his dad’s latest disc, Brooks produced and played on Eddy Clearwater’s West Side Strut. He also produced The Juke Joints’ Let it Roll, while also showing up on works by Elvin Bishop and Biscuit Miller, among others.

“And this guy here in Chicago named Eric Davis has got a CD coming out and I produced it,” said Brooks. “So I’ve been busy, man. Then I did the live CD with Tommy Castro – Command Performance by The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Revue – and we toured around the country for two years doing that.”

Brooks also cut a pair of songs for the upcoming Chicago Blues: A Living History Vol.2, a disc that features work by such notables as Buddy Guy, Magic Slim, Billy Boy Arnold and Billy Branch.

For that particular disc, Brooks did something that he had yet to do.

He recorded one of his dad’s songs.

“That’s the first time I even approached considering doing one of my father’s songs,” he said. “They kind of talked me into it, so I did “Don’t Take Advantage of Me.”

But now it’s time for Brooks to once again focus on his own output and the process of gathering steam for a new disc has begun with the penning of a batch of new songs, all written by the man himself.

“I like doing originals because if I can’t bring anything new to a song that’s already been done, I’d rather not record it,” he said. “I have recorded other people’s songs, but I really like bringing new and fresh ideas to the table. That’s where I’m at in my career right now, doing as much original material as I can.”

Brooks, like most of us, is a product of the environment he was raised in. And Brooks’ environment included hearing an endless variety of music pouring out of the family stereo as a youngster, helping to explain why the music he now creates these days has so many different levels and layers to it.

“Growing up, my father played all styles of music around the house. He used to play in clubs during a time when top 40 and disco music was real strong here in Chicago,” Brooks said. “And so he had to learn how to play everything on the radio. And that rubbed off on me and Wayne. My dad would play all the top 40 stuff – country music, gospel. Early in the morning at our house would be tripped out – our auntie would be up making coffee and you’d hear gospel music playing. Then about the time my dad would get up, you’d be hearing the blues playing in the house. That’s how it was around my house at an early age.”

In addition to being exposed to virtually every type of music around, growing up in the household of Lonnie Brooks also meant being exposed to an unbelievable amount of top-flight blues players who visited the house on a regular basis.

Luther Allison, Koko Taylor and Son Seals, all mainstays of the Chicago blues scene and kingpins of the Alligator Records label, were personal friends of the family and all played huge roles in helping to shape Ronnie Baker Brooks’ sound.

“I was around those cats all the time and we did a lot of shows with them,” said Brooks. “So I got to rub shoulders with them and B.B. King and John Lee Hooker and Elvin Bishop. When you hear me play, you’re going to hear all those cats in my playing.”

Not just traditional blues, Brooks’ music also has touches and flourishes of another style of music that had an impact on his life as a formative youth – hip-hop.

“I grew up in the hip-hop area, when that explosion came along,” he said. “And so that’s a part of me, too. I liked hip-hop and also blues growing up. At an early age, I was listening to Lightnin’ Hopkins and Son House and Muddy and John Lee Hooker. I loved that stuff. And my friends back then used to ask me why I liked listening to that old stuff. But now, those same people are asking for backstage passes, you know.”

Filled with stinging blues licks, funky backbeats and the aforementioned influence from the early days of rap, Brooks’ style, while first and foremost is the blues, is also darn near impossible to pigeonhole.

“All that stuff is in me. I try to keep it authentic and try to keep all the elements of Muddy, my dad, Buddy Guy, B.B. King and Junior Wells in there,” he said. “Junior always used to tell me, ‘man, if YOU can’t feel it, you can’t make the people feel it.’ So all that stuff I feel. I just keep adding onto it and building onto it. That’s my formula. I don’t try to go out and make a hip-hop song, or a blues song, I just let it be what it is for me.”

There are most definitely more lucrative ways to make a living in the music industry than playing the blues. That much has been proven ad nauseam.

But even armed with that knowledge, especially after seeing how hard it was for his dad and other Chicago legends to make a decent living in times past, Ronnie Baker Brooks was not about to be swayed from the path of playing the blues.

“I knew what I was getting into when I decided to take this on as a career,” he said. “I knew that blues was always at the bottom of the barrel (commercial-wise) and never got the same attention as other genres of music. I understood that going in. But it is frustrating at times when you see other genres in music, genres that have been heavily influenced by the blues, get more commercial success. I mean, I have to have money to pay the bills and take care of my family, but I do this because I love it. So when you start thinking about money and commercial success – that can be a real distraction. But no one is ever going to get what they’re worth. Look at B.B. King. In my opinion, he should be making more money than any other artist in music. But he’s not. He’s doing well in our genre, but I think he should be at the very top, regardless of the type of music. But that’s the way the game goes.”

Hanging with the likes of Buddy Guy, B.B. King and John Lee Hooker, along with being placed under the microscope of being the son of Lonnie Brooks certainly must add more weight to a performer trying to find his own way in the music business.

Not so, says Ronnie Baker Brooks.

“I used to think that I had to carry that load, man. But now I think that it’s just an honor,” he said. “I just love to make this kind of music and to see people happy from listening to it,” he said. “Of course, if I could do it from a bigger platform, that would be great, too. But I’m truly blessed to be able to do what I love to do.”

It doesn’t take one long at a Ronnie Baker Brooks show to determine that the man is indeed doing what he loves to do.

Whether sharing the stage with Lonnie and Wayne, or whether leading his own outfit, Ronnie Baker Brooks’ shows are filled with a high-level of energy and intensity from the opening number on, as he seems intent on providing as much bang for the buck as is humanly possible.

“I look at it like this – when you’re up on the stage, it’s up to you to initiate the energy,” he said. “And then if you get the energy out to the crowd, they’re going to give it back. It gets the ball rolling. And then you get this thing going like an avalanche and the whole building is feeling it. And I get that from watching my father, and Buddy Guy, Albert Collins … they’re all showmen. They all have that extra thing. They’re not just showmen, they’re also great musicians and I try to follow that approach. I try to let it out – it’s in me. And these days, people really need to be entertained. I want to give the people that spend their hard-earned money to come see the best show that I can. I’m going to do the best that I can.”

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