Interview, by Mike Stephenson, of this Chicago based blues artist took place on the 2018 European Blues Cruise. Many thanks go to Pertti Nurmi for his support.
I’m Wayne Baker Brooks from Chicago, Illinois; born and raised there to a blues master, Lonnie Brooks. I was born April 1970 and I am one of nine children. My dad had two children before marrying my mother and my mother had two children before marrying my dad. I started in music helping my dad write songs when I was like six years old, and I would keep a beat for him on pots and pans, with forks and knives and spoons and my brother Ronnie would be playing a bass line on a guitar and my dad would say, “Hold it right there”, when we hit a groove and he would come up with lyrics, and sometimes Ronnie and I would chime in with some of the lyrics and he would say he liked that or no, that’s not right. Now some of the stuff we did back then and that my dad wrote, actually he demo’d on a cassette that he gave to Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records, so a lot of the songs he wrote with us ended up on Alligator. That was my first song writing class, as I love to write a song, and whenever I write a song I think back to how dad would do it.
So it developed into like this thing that my dad had with us as a kid and he really encouraged us and he made it fun for us. He would tell us to clean up our room first, so we would clean up our room real fast to hurry up and come and help him with whatever he was doing. He would ask to see our school grades and, if they were ok, he said we could come. He made it so much fun and as far as I remember that is all we always wanted to do was play music, because he made it fun and he never forced us and always wanted to make sure we were interested in it. and if we lost interest he would back off. At some point Ronnie and I started playing basketball and it broke his heart a little bit, but at the same time he didn’t want to force the music on us. So eventually we came back to the music because it was in us.
We were living at 51st and King Drive in Chicago, south side of Chicago, right down the street from my dad’s favorite pool hall. Back then we would have musicians hanging around the house like Koko Taylor, Luther Allison, Eddy Clearwater, Tail Dragger. We lived in the neighborhood where Buddy Guy would come around all the time, as well as Junior Wells. My dad would also do gigs with these folks, like Albert Collins and B.B. King and he would bring us to the shows to see these artists, as well as Willie Dixon and Mighty Joe Young and Muddy Waters, whom I first met at the Chicago Fest at Navy Pier when I was seven years old, and I saw John Primer who was playing with Muddy at that time. He looked exactly like my sister’s husband at the time and I went up to him thinking that is who it was and he put his hand on my head and shook my head.
My first love with music started with the drums, as my dad noticed that I would beat on stuff all the time, so eventually he got me a set of drums from when I was about five years old. Whenever they had a rehearsal at the house, that is the first thing I would jump on is the drums, and his drummer Billy Jackson at the time would show me things. I started traveling with my dad, as his stage manager, guitar tech, the road manager, the accountant, the merchandiser, the laundry washer, so I did everything for him. With songwriting I’m trained not formally, but through my dad as a songwriter and how he structured a song.
My dad, he started playing rock and roll in the fifties and the songs that he came out with were hits for him, things like ‘The Crawl and ‘Family Rules’ and he went out on tour with Sam Cooke and my dad expressed to Sam how much he loved Chicago blues and blues period and Sam told him he should come to Chicago, as that was where all the big names are at. So my dad moved to Chicago in 1959, after he had those hits, and he lived with Sam Cooke for something like nine months in Chicago and then he met my mum and they got together and started having kids.
As a kid you are into other things like having to go to school and my dad being out of town a lot. But when he was home, that was when we would gravitate towards the music stuff, and then there was peer pressure and I started playing basketball. So when I came back into the music was when I graduated out of high school and that’s when I started getting really serious with it, when I was eighteen years old. I did some carpentry, helping fix houses and roofing and cutting down trees and stuff until one day, I was up on that hot roof like five stories up, and that hot tar hitting my foot because I had a hole in my shoe and after that I quit. I thought I had a talent and that I could play music and I thought I’m outta here, and that’s when I started traveling with my dad full time as the stage manager and guitar tech and a bunch of other stuff, as I said.
Jim Schutte, at the time they used to call him Shuffling Schutte, would show me some stuff and this was like 1988, and he would show me how to properly hold the sticks and showed me rudiments and different patterns and I loved all of that. At the time I was going through a lot of stuff, I was having kids at an early age. I had all this stuff built up inside of me and drums wasn’t fulfilling, although I loved it. So at the age of nineteen I switched from drums to guitar. At that time my brother Ronnie was playing full time with my dad. My brother was playing guitar since he was nine years old and I am the one that switched from drums to guitar and that was my dad’s dream, was to have us as a three piece with me on drums and Ronnie on bass and he would go out and play guitar and sing. Ronnie learned how to play bass, but he was always a guitar player, that was the first thing my dad showed him how to play and usually a guitar player can play bass.
So when I started playing guitar, it was easy for me to express myself through the guitar, so I was messing around with it. I didn’t tell my dad I was switching from drums to guitar until one day after a gig, when we were driving home and there was just him and me. I told him I wanted to play guitar and he was ok with that, although he wanted to check out what I could play on guitar and I showed him and he was shocked as he had never seen me play guitar before. I taught myself from that point on, but it messed up his dream and I told him that I would be able to take his legacy a lot further by playing guitar than drums.
I went out on the road with Lonnie for twenty nine years. I was on the road with him constantly. I was doing all sorts of jobs for him as I mentioned, up until when Ronnie left the band in 1999 and then, when Ronnie left I became the band leader. I was actually going to leave because I had started my band in 1997 and I started writing the book ‘Blues For Dummies’ in 1996 which has come out in thirty eight languages. 1998 was when the book was published, so my dad and I went on this big ‘Blues For Dummies’ book tour that took us everywhere and interviews on TV. I remember sitting in one studio and doing about eight different TV stations for two minutes each. So Ronnie left in 1999 but before then, in 1997, Ronnie broke his wrist before coming to play in Switzerland and that became my first gig and my dad needed a guitar player. At the time they didn’t know that I knew the set, because when they practiced I was the guitar tech to make sure everything was good, but when they started I went and grabbed my guitar and I would watch how everyone was playing, but they didn’t know that.
So when Ronnie broke his wrist he couldn’t find anyone to go out on tour with him. I told him I could do it and showed him that I could, so that was my first gig with Lonnie. I was really proud of that. Soon after that Ronnie left the band and I then became the band leader for Lonnie from 1999 up until his death. I also had my band, so in 2017 I celebrated my twentieth anniversary of having my own band.
So in 2018 it was my thirtieth anniversary being a part of Lonnie Brooks Enterprise, which was his business umbrella. I am a board member. With my band I wanted to do a lot of Chicago blues and at that time I was doing a lot of writing and during my set I would play maybe four or five of my own originals and the rest were familiar covers and then I started getting really serious about writing music, because my dad always taught us that if you want to make it in this business you have to be original. So I started writing more songs and would ask my dad what he thought about them and he would guide me.
The first of my songs that I started doing live was ‘Sooner Or Later’ and my father really liked it. Willie Dixon’s family, they helped with publishing, and they made sure that when I wrote a song that I had to put it in my own publishing. That groove I was using on ‘Sooner Or Later’, I was using a Willie Dixon song ‘Evil’ so I combined my groove with ‘Evil’ lyrics and I went to them and asked them if I could do that because they taught me all this stuff about publishing and copyrights and stuff. They told me that I should write my own lyrics to the song so that I own everything and then I came out with the lyrics and then started doing it live. I then did ‘Make It Easy’ and ‘Poor Pitiful Me’ which I did a lot of on the Lone Star Shootout tour with Long John Hunter and Philip Walker and my dad. I would be the bandleader for that tour and would open up the set with that song. The song writing starts with dad having us help him write songs.
I have some of my own material out there. One is ‘Mystery’, released in Chicago in 2003 and internationally in 2004 and to date I have sold over 30,000 copies of it, all independently on my own label Blues Island Records, and it got a lot of rotation on radio stations. ‘Mystery’, ‘Exiled’, ‘You Make It Easy, Baby’ and ‘Sooner Or Later’ were the tracks that hit the radio a lot but ‘Mystery’ was the big track for radio airplay in the US, so it was a hit for me. Then because the way the music industry was turning, leaning towards downloads at the time, not so much streaming, but taking the CD out of the equation, so people started buying downloads. So with the ‘Tricks Up My Sleeve’ album what I started doing was releasing singles first and then release the whole EP, and that is pretty much what I am doing today and I have recently released a new single called ‘Because Of You’, all of them are available on just about everything streaming. Because the music industry has changed, it made sense to me to put out singles first to see where we are at. I have since put out a compilation that has ‘Mystery’ and ‘Tricks Up My Sleeve’ together on one CD. So that is really good for anyone who does not have my music, so they can get it all in one shot and it’s on Blues Island Records.
Music is a full time thing for me and, being blessed enough to be the son of Lonnie, I learned every single night not only the music but the business part as well. Being on tour with the likes of Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, B.B. King, Taj Mahal and Albert King, with my father who I have been crazy about all my life, and Freddy and Albert told me to play my guitar, but guitarists are a dime a dozen and if you are going to play the guitar, play the hell out of it. When he told me that that helped me bear down on the guitar. I was learning from all these guys I was watching them conduct business. They would guide me and I have since built up a knowledge about the music industry which is important stuff and then learning from Willie Dixon’s family on publishing and stuff has been very helpful for me. Marie Dixon showed me how to make money out of publishing, she gave me a crash course in the music publishing business. I stayed out in California with her in her house for like three days and both Marie and Shirley Dixon showed me how to make money off of publishing. The business part of it came out of necessity, but I started liking it, so I now mange myself and promote myself and I put on shows. I have my All Star Blues Bash that I have had Elvin Bishop and Chris Thomas King on and Eddy Clearwater, Lil Ed, Mike Wheeler, all in Chicago, and in Kalamazoo I did Bobby Rush, me, Joe Louis Walker and Shawn Holt. It used to be a regular thing and we are trying to bring it back. I did it 2016 and it started in 2007 and then up to 2009 and then the economy was getting bad in the US. When the economy picked up, that’s when I brought the Blues Bash back. In Chicago it was mostly at The House Of Blues. We are looking at bringing it back and maybe we can tour it around the US and maybe Europe as a package. The concept is my band would back everyone and I would have the all stars, who would get thirty minutes a piece, and then we all jam at the end.
I play everywhere, been to Europe often and been to forty countries performing; probably half of that has been with my dad and the other half with my band. I vary the size of my band and at one point I had an eight piece with all horns and stuff, but now it varies from a four to a five piece. Sometimes I do a three piece and I kinda like that as it keeps me from being lazy on rhythm. I use on bass, Kenny Kinsey from the Kinsey Report and he has been with me for thirteen years and Jerry Porter is on drums and he used to play with Buddy Guy for twenty years. I may even consider doing solo acoustic gigs and whatever the promoter or venue want, that’s what I am tryingI was born in Cook County Hospital in Chicago and we lived in Washington Park and that was a mile or so away from the Checkerboard Lounge and I still live in Chicago today. So I would frequent such clubs with my dad. At one point my dad was writing for Chess Records like every week, a lot of people don’t know that. I think Leonard or Phil Chess got into it with Willie Dixon and Willie left and they hired my dad and then I guess Willie wanted his job back so instead of just booting my dad out they gave him an opportunity to record on the Checker label so I think he did a couple of singles on Checker. I know my dad tried to be different and he was one of the first guys to bring the swamp, Louisiana funk type blues to Chicago and they didn’t know where the hell that stuff was coming from, so I get trying to be different and original from him. I know when my dad was recording in Chicago he had to play the song for many minutes before the musicians gelled and got it and then Bruce Iglauer would say to them all, ‘Let’s get this right here’ and they got his magic on tape.
I’m trying to take my music beyond a straight blues structure but everything I do will always be blues based. I’ll never forget that when Ronnie first started playing with my dad, my dad got angry with him as he thought he was playing the same thing that he was playing and told him he needed to play something different, so I learnt from that mistake Ronnie made. So I have made sure I don’t play like my dad or Ronnie and the same with me writing songs.
I did record with my father on a Christmas song ‘All I Want For Christmas Is To Be With You’ that came out on Alligator. We did a lot of live recordings but I don’t know if they have ever been released. When he did ‘Roadhouse Rules’ Jim Gaines the producer was trying to fit me in but I wasn’t ready at that time. Bruce Igaluer wanted me to be on there along with Ronnie who recorded a lot with my dad. I’ve got my dad and Ronnie on my album ‘Mystery’. I don’t think I have been on any other artist recordings. The goal was to do a Brooks family blues album, something like what we would do when we went out on the road as the Brooks Family Blues Dynasty, but then my dad got sick so that didn’t happen sadly.
The name Baker Brooks came about as my dad’s real name is Lee Baker Jr. His stage name was Lonnie Brooks and he got his stage name from when he was a little kid they called him Little Lee and because of the Creole people down south, they turned it into Lonnie trying to say Little Lee but it came out as Lonnie. My dad is a kid from sharecroppers, so when they would be out in the fields they would leave the kids when they were little with a woman named Mrs. Brooks. He remembered that and when he came to Chicago he changed his name in 1960 because there was a Guitar Jr already in Chicago and who was playing with Muddy Waters and so people would get confused when he went under the name Guitar Jr., thinking they were going to see Luther ‘Guitar Jr’ and others would get confused thinking they were going to see Guitar Jr, ‘The Crawl’ Guitar Jr. so to end all of that he named himself Lonnie Brooks. So me personally I’m honoring both my real name and my dad’s stage name, Ronnie as well.
I’m thinking of getting another album out and it will be showing a way blues is related to all the US musical genres, so I may add a little flavor of hip hop and rap to it. If you listen to ‘Something’s Going Down’ off the Tricks Up My Sleeve EP, which did really well for me on TV and radio, and which is a song I wrote during Obama’s campaign, to me it’s like a northern Mississippi rhythm. The Chicago Bears picked that song up and it had Twista, a rapper from Chicago, and GLC and Sugar Blue on it so I wanted it to be all Chicago and I will try and do something like that collaboration on the new album. I was also hoping that the two rappers’ fans would be introduced to the blues and my father’s and my playing. Visit Wayne’s website for upcoming shows at www.waynebakerbrooks.com.