Featured Interview – Ronnie Baker Brooks


Cover photo © 2023 Joseph A. Rosen

“Writing and recording original material. I love that part of it just as much as playin’ live on stage. Just gettin’ in there and makin’ an idea become a song and watchin’ the song become something for the audience. I love that process, I really do. It’s like almost havin’ kids (haha).”

Ronnie Baker Brooks is the live-wire Blues-power torch bearer of the rocking, funky Chicago Blues. Literally the heir to the throne, Ronnie is the son of revolutionary genius Bluesman Lonnie Brooks. While learning at his dad’s feet, Ronnie also made a point of paying his dues and coming up right. Earning his place in his dad’s band and then breaking out on his own, Ronnie is known as the preeminent live Bluesman scorching stages all over the world. 

With his reputation as a live musician and with only 4 solo records to his credit, Ronnie is sometimes overlooked as a recording artist. However, his 4 albums are pinnacles of modern Blues. Pulling from R&B, Funk, Rock, Rap, Soul and anything else he hears in his head, Ronnie has delivered a catalog of original, exceptional, and timeless recorded music.

I asked Ronnie to talk about his recording career because I think it is underrated. With just this one question Ronnie launched into an hour and half monologue in which he described the creation of his 4 albums. A cogent and engaging storyteller (like all good Blues musicians should be), Ronnie also used the framework of his recording career to outline the ever present influence of his father who passed in 2017, the legacy of the Blues and the history of the modern Blues scene. What is presented below is an edited fraction of the oral history that Ronnie laid on me.

Ronnie Baker Brooks’s music, and clearly his whole being, revolves around the gift that is the relationship he has with his dad. Even though Lonnie Brooks has passed, the loving, guiding relationship he had with his son is still vibrant and real today. Mr. Brooks’s spirit clearly still holds his son everyday. Ronnie was born with the music jones and his father shared his music freely, even when young Ronnie was mischievous.

“Do you remember the old reel to reels? My dad used to record on that. He would do ideas, demos and stuff on that. So I’m like 7-8 and I’m sitting with Dad and trying to learn these songs. One day Dad was gone and I’m tryin’ to play with the reel to reel to learn a song and record. The reel to reel messed up, man. Tape was everywhere (big laugh). I didn’t know how to fix it so I left it alone.”

“Dad came home. He said ‘Ronnie, I know ain’t nobody in this house mess with this but you. I’m gonna give you a chance to tell me the truth. You tell me the truth I ain’t gonna spank you.’ I said Dad it was me I did it. He said, ‘I know. I appreciate you tellin’ me the truth.’ he said, ‘but please, next time you want to record or do something, let me sit here with you. Because you don’t know and I got songs on these tapes that I need. Ideas, you know.’ I said okay Dad, okay Dad.” 

“Man, about a week later I tried it again (chuckles). I messed it up again. Tore it up, tape everywhere. He comes home from work, that’s when Dad was working day jobs and playing gigs at night, and he saw the tape and he said ‘God damn it Ronnie, I told you, now I’m gonna get you.”

“Normally I go to bed at 9 on a Friday, man, it was 6 or 7 o’clock, Dad’s gettin’ ready for this gig, I jump in the bed (hahaha). From my bed I could see the front door. Normally when Dad leaves I would always walk Dad to the door, carry his guitar to the door. He would always kiss me on my forehead and I would beg: let me go with you. man, let me go with you. ‘No son, you ain’t old enough yet, one day, one day.’ This time I was trying to play I was asleep. I’m like okay he gonna leave, he ain’t gonna get me.” 

“Man, he got to that door, he set the guitar down, he thought about. He looked, he saw me in that bed, he pulled off his belt, man, and he lit me up (big laughs). ‘I told you to leave that stuff alone.’ I cried, man. My dad was so cool, man, he didn’t like to do that stuff cause he knew my heart wasn’t there. After every night, on these late night gigs, he would come home and bring me an Almond Joy, a candy bar. And he brought me a candy bar that night, man. I know he felt bad about it, that he had to spank me, but he had to show me.”

By the late 1980’s Lonnie Brooks was one of the main stars of the Blues revival on the major label of the revival Alligator. Ronnie and brother Wayne, who is also a talented Bluesman in his own right, were no longer sneaking into their Dad’s basement music room and messing with his gear. They were part of the Brooks organization carrying equipment and getting a chance to play a couple numbers each night. 

“My Dad would always push me and my brother Wayne to write our own material. He would always say what’s gonna be the next ‘Sweet Home Chicago,’ what’s gonna be the next ‘Got My Mojo Working.’ So you guys got to write about your stories and hopefully that song will carry on to the next generation. Where someone can grab onto it and build on it, and tell their story.”

Ronnie, being the oldest, got his chance first as his dad’s rhythm guitarist. Growing and developing his style, Ronnie was writing his own songs, opening the shows and making a name for himself. Working on Lonnie Brooks’s 1996 masterpiece Roadhouse Rules  propelled Ronnie to a new level, and a new phase in his relationship with his dad.

“He went down to Memphis to record his record Roadhouse Rules. I really helped out with that record. My dad allowed me, let me put it that way (chuckles), because he didn’t really need me. I wrote the first track ‘Hoodoo She Do,’ for him. He trusted me and that gave me confidence, it gave me a lot of confidence that my dad trusted me.” 

Using his dad’s band and riding off the high of the Roadhouse sessions, Ronnie created his debut statement of high octane Blues Rock: Golddigger. Ronnie remembers the crucial moment when he brought his new creation home for his dad to hear it for the first time and the life altering wisdom and support his father gave him. 

“We got it done, man, and I brought it back home to Chicago and I played it for my dad in the basement. It was just me and Dad with a glass of wine, man. He just listened from the beginning to the end. He wasn’t given’ me nothin’, he was just really listening. At the end of the record, finally, he looked up at me and he said, ‘Son, it’s time for you to go out on your own.’ I said wait a minute, man – me, you and Wayne, we a team you know? He said, ‘Yes, we always be a team but they need to know you as a solo artist and they’re not gonna know you that way if you continue to play with me.” 

“I came to tears, man. I never thought about leaving my dad, never crossed my mind. What my dad said to me was very key, he said: ‘If it don’t work, you can always come back. You’ve always got a gig here’ And when he said that to me, man (trailing off with emotion in his voice).” 

“Look, Lonnie Brooks is my dad (laughing). I’m looking at one of my favorites of all time every night. I’m like, I can’t do that. So it was a lot of pressure. But, when he said I could come back, I said, okay and I jumped off the bridge.” 

Jumping off the bridge meant building up the Ronnie Baker Brooks organization. The elder Brooks thought his son was gonna take his band with him. But Ronnie, the dutiful son, did not. Ronnie pulled together his own team. Central to that team, and to his continued musical education, was Golddigger’s producer, the R&B legend Jellybean Johnson.

“Jellybean Johnson is a producer, musician, guitarist and drummer from Morris Day and the Time. He comes from the Flyte Tyme camp with Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam. He was in the movie Purple Rain. He’s a Minneapolis R&B legend. Bean produced ‘Black Cat’ for Janet Jackson, he produced New Edition, a lot of R&B stuff. Bean’s resume is off the charts of the stuff he’s produced. But I was the first Blues artist he was producing. So that was a challenge for him, but, it was comfort for me. It allowed me to be my own artist, but, he had the experience from that world to bring over here. And I hope I brought the Blues over to him. So it was a great match, man. Bean’s my brother forever, man, forever.”

Ronnie also needed a band. He drew on his many years of touring with his dad and relationship building. He knew exactly who he wanted backing him up. First was a drummer Ronnie had befriended many years earlier at a shared bill with Lonnie Brooks and the Buddy Guy/Junior Wells band.

“I remember seeing at the gig Jerry Porter, this young kid playing with Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, man. They opening for Dad now, this how far this go back. Jerry got on this wife-beater t-shirt with these big ol’ muscles, man. And playin’ the drums like, you remember Bam Bam from Flintstones (cracking up, big laugh)? He was beating those drums, man, he had Buddy Guy on his tippy toes, man! Cause Buddy loved it, he was on his tippy toes playin! I’m like who is this dude? We connected, we connected that day.”

Jerry Porter had subsequently taken a day job. But, Ronnie convinced him to get back into the game. He said: “Man, Jerry with your talent there is no way in the world you should be workin’ for UPS, man, we need you!”

Then they needed a bass player. Ronnie had another guy in mind:

“Vic Jackson was on bass. He had been playing with Junior Wells, when Junior was doing his own thing. Junior had called me to do some gigs with him and I did a tour with Junior. I was Vic’s roommate. Vic was like ‘if you ever start a band, man, I would love to work with you.’ I said okay, man. This was back in the early 90’s I wasn’t even thinking of no band, you know. When I finally got ready to do my own band I remembered that moment and I called Vic.”

“I have to thank those guys, man, because they helped me with the creative process of playin’ live shows and trying out stuff. And it worked, you know! And eventually I got Daryl Coutts, who’s still playin’ with me now today on keyboards. Those guys were very key.”

With a hot band and a killer new record the Ronnie Baker Brooks machine was primed and ready. Weekly gigs at Bugsy’s outside Chicago and endless touring honed the team. But, it was hard to get a record deal so Ronnie did it himself.

“Now I started Watchdog Records because first of all, at that time, there wasn’t many record companies signing young artists like myself at my age. One of the reasons was we still had a lot of legends left that were not recorded. You know, not gettin’ the attention they deserved. So there definitely wasn’t no room for me (laughing).”

“So I said forget it. I ran into my friends Big Head Todd and the Monsters. We did a show with them here in Chicago. I went on the bus with them, they all around my age. I said man I’m tryin’ to do this record and I can’t get a record deal. They said ‘man, put it out yourself.’ I said what? They told me if you put it out yourself you have full control. All you have to do is sell it to the distributors for a certain amount and then collect your money if you’re selling. Get yourself a mailing list. They gave me the formula, man.”

“From my local gigs here in Chicago, every now and then I’d go off with Dad, I was buildin’ a fanbase. I would collect the names, man, I had built up a huge mailing list. It helped me sell the merchandise, the CDs and all that, to prepare me for the next record. I would just take whatever I made from Golddigger and saved it for the next record.” 

“I was doing that all by myself. My mom and my sister Jackie, that passed away, they helped me start the label. They would do all the book keeping and all the accounting for me. It freed me up to be the creative artist. And I had my dad, I had Jellybean on the artistic side of it. Yes, we had a little machine going here. It inspired me.”

Ronnie was also inspired by a late night phone call from Jellybean with a mind blowing new fan:

“It was like 4 o’clock in the morning,” Ronnie remembers with awe in his voice, “My phone rings and it’s Jellybean so I answer it – what’s up Bean? He said ‘Baby Bra, I’m here in Vegas, man, I gave Prince your CD, man, he loves it!’ I said you kidding me man (laughing). He said ‘No man, he love that Golddigger, man, he love Golddigger.’ I said wow! I could not sleep for 2 days, it was crazy, man. It was so inspiring, so inspiring. First of all to know that Jellybean was cool enough to do this with me and then to know that Prince dug it. Aw, man, so I started writing more material, just writing, writing, writing. And that became Take Me Witcha.”

Take Me Witcha is Ronnie Baker Brooks’s line in the sand. A masterpiece of guitar based Blues Funk Rock that perfectly synthesizes his real deal Blues upbringing and his fully modern understanding of R&B, Soul and Rock. Truly drawing from Prince’s exceptional cross pollination of music, Ronnie was on fire. It was important to Ronnie that he use his new band on this record. But, the music was so large in scope it needed additional support too. 

“I got a couple tracks I let Bean hear.” Ronnie remembers Jellybean saying, “Man, we gotta get Michael Bland, Sonny Thompson and Chance Howard on this one. We gonna do a block of songs up here in Minneapolis.”

For those who don’t know, those musicians were Prince’s band at the time, The New Power Generation. Jellybean and Ronnie also found a creative home in Memphis at Niko Lyras’s Cotten Row Recording Studio and got to work. Ronnie wanted Buddy Guy’s daughter Shawnna to rap for him. Shawnna had a major hit drop right at that time with Ludacris and couldn’t make it work. The Guys and the Brooks have a long familial history and Ronnie sees Buddy as a beloved uncle. But, that didn’t stop him from checking in with Buddy about the missed opportunity.

“I went to the club to see Buddy at Legends. He said ‘Hey man, I heard you were trying to get Shawnna to do a track with you.’ I said yeah. He said ‘yeah, she can’t do it now but I’ll do one.’ I said what (laughing)? He said ‘get the track ready and when you ready get it over here to me and I’ll do it.”

“We were tracking ‘Take Me Witcha,’ the song, title track of the album. That was supposed to be Buddy Guy on that record. What happened, we got the track done, we saved a slot open. I did the solos and everything, I always cover my butt. If Buddy wants to come in we gonna give him this spot, but we got a solo just in case he don’t come.”

“Man, thank God I did that because Buddy got busy too. I went down to the club and (chuckling), I said: Buddy I got the track ready. He said: ‘Okay man, I’m gettin’ ready to do this tour let me get with you when I get back.’ And he was gone, man. It was right after he did his January residence here in Chicago at Legends and February he’s gone. At that time he was gone till like June. I was like I can’t wait so I just put it out.”

“I’ll never forget this too, man (laughing). I’m gonna tell the story, man, it’s the truth. I went down there after the record was done, I said ‘Buddy, I know you were supposed to play on the record and you got busy you couldn’t do it. But, let me go on the road with you. I’ll play for cheap.’ And he looked at me, he said ‘Man, you don’t play my club for cheap.”

This is the kind of family love and connection that exists for Ronnie in the Blues community. Ronnie remembers:

“I’ll never forget one night playing at Legends. Jellybean flew in to play with me. The place is packed, wall to wall people. Standing on their chairs in the back trying to see us. I had my eyes closed. I’m playin’ my solo and I hear people screamin’ and hollerin’. I’m thinkin’ aw they’re screamin’ for me (giggles). Buddy walks up on stage, man, I didn’t know I had my eyes closed. I look over, I get scared, I say whoa. He said (with a low Buddy Guy impression) ‘yeah, I came up here to fuck witcha.”

Ronnie and Jellybean took this feeling of community and acknowledgment from their elders into the next project The Torch. A massive double album, Ronnie just let it all fly on The Torch. Some of his heaviest Rock, some of his deepest Blues, some of his stanky-ist Funk, The Torch is a summation of Ronnie’s mission to preserve and push forward the Blues. One song in particular, “The Torch of the Blues,” is a validation and benediction.

“I had Jimmy Johnson, Willie Kent, Eddie ‘The Chief’ Clearwater and Dad sing ‘The Torch of the Blues.’ And man, you know I never won any awards, I got 1 award maybe, but I haven’t won that many. I’ve been nominated and we all love to be acknowledged and I appreciate that. No disrespect, I appreciate the nominations so much. But to be acknowledged by Jimmy Johnson, Willie Kent, Eddie Clearwater and my dad on a song, that’s my award brother.” 

“I tried to pay all of them and they would not accept a dollar, they wouldn’t even let me pay for parking. I’m serious. They said, ‘look man, we see what you doin’. You keep doin’ what you doin’. Anything you need from us, we are here.’ Oh man, to have that in the room on the track. That moment when we cut the song wasn’t nobody sick, it wasn’t a funeral. We were there for the Blues, we were there for the Blues. And you could feel it in the room, man.”

The one thing Ronnie could do to pay back these legends was support their art. Eddie “The Chief” Clearwater asked Ronnie to produce a song for him. What started as a jam session at Clearwater’s house turned into a full album, the vibrant West Side Strut. Recorded in Chicago and Memphis, the album ends with a beautiful benediction from Clearwater, one of his last fully realized artistic statements, the haunting track “A Time for Peace.”

“I brought it back and that was the last song I played for him, ‘A Time for Peace.’ Man, he looked at me with a tear comin’ down his face. He said ‘Ronnie, I am so proud of you, man. This is great, thank you.’ He was crying, man. It’s bringing me to tears now thinkin’ about it cause he’s gone, man, you know. He trusted me to do that. It was a great moment.” 

Fast forward almost 10 years to 2016. Ronnie has built his reputation through preaching the gospel of the Blues far and wide. He has solidified his place as one of the most incendiary live Blues acts going. He has paid tribute to his elders and kept the Blues alive. He has played at the White House for both of the Obama inaugurations, rubbed shoulders with Rock royalty like Keith Richards and Eric Clapton and made some high end connections. Ronnie is becoming one of the legends he has apprenticed at the feet of. 

It’s time for Ronnie to get back into the studio. Ronnie decides he wants to work with his dream collaborator, Steve Jordan. Steve Jordan was the drummer in the first Late Night with David Letterman World’s Most Dangerous Band. A thrilling musician and producer, Jordan has become the go to guy to pull together unique forward thinking Roots based music. Having met a few times, it was after a recording session Ronnie guested on that he knew this was the right match.

“Big Head Todd was doing a record and Steve Jordan was producing it. They were cuttin’ here in Chicago and I went to the studio and did a track. I didn’t even hear the track but 1 time, man. Steve’s like ‘nope, grab the guitar, grab one of them Gibsons.’ I said, man, I didn’t bring no pedal. He said ‘you don’t need no pedal board. Plug into that amp, we got that Super right here. Play.’ I’m just messin’ around with it. He said ‘that’s great! That’s the best solo I’ve ever heard you play.’ (laughing) He just let me go for it. If you overthink it, it’s gonna be too much.”

“Steve when he’s in creative mode,” says Ronnie observing the very different way of working, “if you don’t know him he can be very New York hard, you know. You got to come with it. You can’t be bullshittin’. But he’s got a soft side, once you make that connection, now it’s great, it’s beautiful, and it took me a minute with that with Steve.”

Steve and Ronnie went down to Royal Studios in Memphis, the home of so many classic Soul hits to record what would become Times Have Changed. They enlisted the legendary Hi Rhythm Section of Willie Weeks on bass, Charles and Teenie Hodges on organ and guitar respectively, and guitarist Michael Toles, a member of the Bar-Kays who also played with Isaac Hayes among others. 

As they are recording, the engineer brings out the actual mic that Al Green always sang into. Guest stars abounded: Angie Stone, Steve Cropper, Bobby Bland and of course Lonnie Brooks. Ronnie, still trying to figure out how to connect with Steve Jordan and surrounded by so much history and talent, was feeling a little intimidated.

Ronnie was told by Steve: “I know you’re used to doing everything yourself. Writing, arranging, producing, even accounting and all that. But, I’m here, I’ve got you. Don’t worry about nothin’ but making this music. Just follow the vibe.”

But it was still tough at first. Ronnie’s breakthrough came early on while recording the instrumental “Twine Time.” 

“I just hit this chord, man (Ronnie sings a very funky rhythm). I just kept hitting that chord. Steve’s like ‘Yeah Michael (Toles) I like that let’s keep that.’ And Michael said ‘Hey man, that ain’t me.’ Steve said, ‘Is that you Ronnie?’ I said yeah. He got up off his drums, came in the booth and grabbed me by my shoulders. ‘That’s what I’m talkin’ about! That’s it!’ When he did that to me, man, all that New York hardness and feeling intimidated went out the window. I felt like I connected with Steve Jordan. I’m like yeah, that’s all I wanted was to connect with you brother. And the session went from there, it was awesome.”

Times Have Changed is a fully mature statement. Coherent and consistent even while featuring so many guests. The record is also the final recorded works of both Ronnie’s dad who would pass away shortly after the album’s release and the great Memphis legend Bobby “Blue” Bland. 

Bland came in to duet with Ronnie on the Robert Cray/Eric Clapton song “Old Love,” a staple of Ronnie’s live set and a favorite song of his mother’s. The elder statesmen held everyone in rapt attention on his day in the studio. Telling these highly accomplished musicians about his early days, wisely the engineers recorded it all.

“Bobby’s talkin’ into the microphone, we think he’s gettin’ ready to sing, he’s holding class. And nobody’s saying nothin’. Even Steve Jorden’s like: Wow, great! Bobby says, ‘Well I came here to sing, I done talked enough, let’s do the track.’ He said to me, ‘Son, you can sing, can’t you? Lonnie Brooks your daddy and I know he can sing.’ (laughing) And that broke the ice, everybody started laughing, you know.”

Times Have Changed and the connection Ronnie and Steve made lasted. Inspired and held by the experience, Ronnie was transformed and fortified for hardships to come.

“Each record I do I try to build a platform for me to be better. That particular session with Steve Jordan made me a better musican, man. It really did. It taught me how to work in the studio with this caliber of talent. And then it built my confidence in delivering the song. He gave me pointers on when I’m writing. He would tell me how he writes songs, how John Mayer writes songs. Some of the stuff I was already doing, but it gave me that stamp of approval. Okay I’m on the right track.”

“When my father passed Steve was crucial. He called me and talked to me like a therapist, like a big brother would: ‘You got to keep going, man. You know what your daddy did. He did this for you and your brother to keep going. He gave you this platform.”

“I said to Steve there were several people that died from our record, I was so hurt. Steve was like, ‘Look Ronnie, this is the legacy record, they blessed you. You just keep doin’ what you’re doin’, man. This is part of the process.’ It helped me. All the problems I had in my life I had my dad to go to. He’s no longer with me, so that was important to me, Steve being there along with several of my other friends.”

Ronnie Baker Brooks has created a genre defining and defying career. Having an open heart and a learner’s mind, Ronnie has opened himself up to the music and the wisdom of his elders. His most important teacher is his father. Ronnie and Mr. Brooks spent so much time together making music and sharing their lives. It wasn’t until much later that Ronnie was asked by his dad to produce an album for him. Their album never came to fruition, but father and son spent some magical time working out songs in the same basement Ronnie had nearly destroyed his dad’s reel to reel. This time Ronnie was the audio engineer.  

“My dad stopped the session of us recording. I’m workin’ my gear. I’m tryin’ to mix stuff and put stuff together for Dad. He said, ‘Wait a minute, man, you remember when I had to whoop your butt for messing with my reel to reel?’ I said yeah. He said, ‘I’m glad you didn’t stop, man. Cause I don’t know how to run this stuff you got today.’ He said, ‘I’m so glad you kept goin’, man. I used to be sitting down here writing stuff. I’d turn around and I could see you, you would hide around the corner. And I knew you were there and sometimes I’d act like I didn’t see you. But, I could feel you, I could feel you watching me, man. I’m so glad you kept goin’ son.”

Ronnie keeps going. Ronnie keeps pushing and expanding the parameters of the Blues. He can do that because he has been raised in the Blues. Ronnie understands that the Blues exist in people, in community and in individuality.

“We all soldiers. This music is important to so many of us, man. I feel it’s my duty because I’ve been blessed to be around these great musicians to keep it goin’. I used to think of it as an obligation. I was putting pressure on myself because you’re not obligated to do it, you gotta love this shit to do it. And I love it. I was talking to Tom Marker here in Chicago (Blues radio DJ) telling him the same thing. He said, ‘No Ronnie, it’s an honor.’ And when he’d said that to me it like took the ton of bricks of the pressure off me. You know what, you’re right, this is an honor, man. So I’m honored.”

Check out Ronnie’s website: https://ronniebakerbrooks.com/ for more info
and upcoming shows.

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