For as long as there’s been kitchens, parents have turned their children loose with a wooden spoon and an upside down pot, letting their young ones entertain themselves by striking pot with spoon, over and over again.
But for a young Wayne Baker Brooks, those free-form jams in the dining room with an assortment of kitchen utensils had a little more meaning to them.
They were song-writing sessions with his dad, Chicago blues legend Lonnie Brooks.
“Growing up, we would help dad write songs. Those were really my first lessons in song-writing – those times helping him,” said Wayne Baker Brooks. “He’d have me beating on a box or pots and pans with forks and knifes, playing the drums. And he’d have my brother Ronnie playing the bass lines on a guitar. Dad would sit there and say, ‘keep that groove right there. Don’t move.’ And he’d be thinking up lyrics as we played. And then he’d tell us where the turnaround was in the song. So in retrospect, that was my very first songwriting class, even though I didn’t know it at the time.”
While most of those pot-and-pan banging songwriting workouts with his dad resulted in fruit that was would soon find its way to one of Lonnie Brooks’ many releases on the Alligator Records label, the kind of fruit Wayne Baker Brooks harvests these days is a bit different than the traditional Chicago blues that his dad crafts.
And according to Wayne Baker Brooks, that’s by design.
“I could do an all blues album, 12-bar stuff, and probably get a lot of recognition just in the blues industry. And I’m fine with that,” he said. “But I’m influenced by a lot of other music outside of the blues. I grew up on everything from the blues to George Clinton, to Run DMC to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. My dad introduced us to a lot of blues as babies. Actually, when we were still in the womb, he would put headphones on my mom’s stomach and that was our first introduction to music and the blues. I learned music by ear; I don’t know how to read music and I don’t know how to write music, except from the heart. I have to feel something in order for me to do something. It’s all about feelings and emotions for me. I can’t do anything that I don’t feel inside.”
And lately, that feeling inside has led Wayne Baker Brooks down a path that only a small number of artists have chosen to travel.
A path that has managed to span two wildly different worlds.
Released this past winter, the single “Something’s Going Down” is a fast and furious tune that takes a ghostly, bluesy vibe and melds it with some socially-conscious rhymes, and is underpinned by some old-school, soulful backing vocals.
Not his daddy’s blues, for sure.
“It (“Something’s Going Down”) is a unique, innovative blend of blues and hip-hop, with the legendary, multi-Platinum rapper Twista, Grammy Award winner GLC and the legendary blues harmonica player Sugar Blue,” Brooks said. “That single really helped the mainstream know who Wayne Baker Brooks is.”
Rap artists have long ago proven they are comfortable stepping outside of their normal zone and are routinely heard on a number of pop, rock and top 40 tunes these days.
But a big-time superstar like Twista free-styling over a blues track?
“Man, he absolutely loved it. I got another track with Twista on it and that kind of shocked me,” said Brooks. “I sent him two tracks so he could choose the one he wanted to work on. But he messed around and liked them both, so he did both of them. That lets me know that these youngsters do want the blues, but they just don’t know how to put them together.”
Fans of Mystery, Brooks’ 2004 solo release, shouldn’t fret about his dabbling in the world of hip-hop.
Because Wayne Baker Brooks sure hasn’t turned his back and abandoned the incendiary, guitar-driven blues that he cut his teeth on when he was growing up and gigging with his dad, along with Buddy Guy, Luther Allison and a score of other forefathers of the genre.
His latest single, “Changeling,” issued July 12 on Brooks’ own Blues Island Records, is proof positive of that.
“Oh, yeah. That was a song I recorded with Tom Hambridge, who has produced a host of others, like Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Shemekia Copeland and a lot of other big names,” said Brooks. “I’m so full of gratitude to be included on his producer’s list. That song is currently being picked up all over Canada and the United States right now, so it’s doing well. Those that knew me only as my father’s guitar tech now know I’m a major player in this industry.”
While he definitely has one eye on the future, with the way his music is composed to reflect our modern times, Brooks also has one eye turned on the past, taking a page out of the way the record industry used to do business – with artists releasing a series of singles before their long-player would ever hit the open market.
“I have 22 tracks finished and I feel like I can release a single every three to four months. And that seems to be working. I know people are waiting for a new album from me, but with the technology these days, it’s allowing us to bring back the old days,” he said. “If you look at the way hip-hop does things, they release mix-tapes, or even give away mix-tapes. People are so tired of buying an album and only liking one song on it. Nowadays, the people are only going to buy what they like – with iTunes and Amazon and Rhapsody and these other digital retailers selling singles – so I’m releasing the stuff that I think my audience will like. And that’s been working out. Not only are the people liking what I’m doing, the tastemakers are liking it, as well. And with this collection of singles, I have music for everybody. But the bottom line is, the audience is my boss. I listen to what the people want.”
And with the people digging the direction that he’s been heading in lately, Brooks is confident that following his heart is the only way to go, regardless of where that journey takes him.
“Well, each song I write is a part of me. I truly think that’s my strongest point –songwriting. I’m not looking to be a Jimi Hendrix or some singing sensation; I just love to write songs,” he said. “I want to be the best Wayne Baker Brooks that I possibly can be. I am trying to master the Chicago blues, but I also have this other side of me, where I would like to expand the blues. My whole purpose is to turn people on to the blues that know nothing about the blues. So I’m using that other side of me to grab that audience and say, ‘hey. This is where that music (popular) comes from.’ All American music comes from the blues and my purpose is to turn other people on to the blues. I’ve figured it out. That’s why I’m here.”
One heck of a busy dude, in addition to being a singer, song writer, guitar player and producer, Wayne Baker Brooks also owns a record label, is his own booking agency and manager, and he also owns his own publishing company.
But there’s yet another facet to Wayne Baker Brooks.
He’s also a published author.
Released in 1998, Blues for Dummies is 400 well-written pages that spotlights the founding fathers of the genre, gives insightful tips on how to listen to the blues and even tells the proper way to throw a juke joint-styled party.
Novices to the music, as well those well-versed in the blues, can all pick up a host of helpful information from Brooks’ book.
“That was an unexpected project. I came up with the idea and took it to IDG Books,” he said. “It was during the 1996 Chicago Blues Festival. It was the first time in seven or eight years that we didn’t have anything to do that weekend, so I went and hung out with a couple of my friends. And they were showcasing Muddy Waters’ house at the blues fest. So I walked into this shack that 17 people had lived in and I thought, ‘wow. This is the deep blues right here.’ But at the same time, I was so angry that they uprooted this man’s house to come and show people where he lived. I thought they would never do that to Elvis’ house – never do that to Graceland. Everybody knows who Elvis is, but everybody doesn’t know who Muddy Waters is. And that’s when I came up with the idea to write a book. People should know who Muddy Waters is. They shouldn’t have to uproot his house. People should go to Muddy Waters’ house just like they go to Graceland. So the next morning, I woke up and told my friends, ‘I’m going to write a book.’ And they laughed. I said, ‘I’m going to write Blues for Dummies,’ and then they really laughed.”
At that time, the … for Dummies series was red-hot. Taking advantage of that, Brooks found a willing publisher, IDG Books. After a meeting in a downtown Chicago restaurant that was full of businessmen in suits (“I was the only one in a baseball cap and jeans. I stuck out like a sore thumb,” Brooks said), he was given the green light to proceed. But in addition to coming up with the content for the book, he also had to come up with a blues historian and a blues legend to help verify facts and provide support when needed.
After a quick phone call to former Brownsville Station and noted lover of all things related to the blues, the late, great Cub Koda, Brooks had his historian on board.
And as for the blues legend? That shouldn’t have been hard to find with Lonnie Brooks sitting right in the living room, right?
Wrong, says Wayne Baker Brooks.
“I told dad the name of the book was Blues for Dummies and he said, ‘man, I ain’t going around calling nobody a dummy, dummy.’ I felt like I was on Sanford and Son for a minute and he was Fred Sanford calling (me) Lamont a dummy,” laughed Brooks. “But he said no, he didn’t want to do it. So I told him to just go to a book store and he’d see the … for Dummies series everywhere. It was a big brand. So he went to the bookstore and saw the series and came back and said, ‘man, I saw Wine for Dummies and Math for Dummies and Sex for Dummies …’ So I said, ‘are you going to do it then?’ And he said, ‘hell no! I’m still not going to do it.’”
Faced with the prospect of throwing in the towel, since he had already promised the publisher that Lonnie Brooks would be the legend involved with the book, Wayne Baker Brooks nevertheless stayed the course and called John Lee Hooker, B.B. King and Robert Cray to see if they were interested in coming aboard.
They were. All three of them.
“They all graciously said they would love to do the book. So I thought, cool, I can choose any one of the three to be my co-author,” said Brooks. “So the next day, I went back to my dad and told him that I had talked to John Lee, B.B. and Robert and that they all said they would be involved in the project. And then he said, ‘for real? They said they’d do it?’ And after a quick minute, he said, ‘never-mind. I’ll do it.’ So (helped by a little peer pressure) dad got involved after all. So that’s how the book came about, how Cub Koda and my dad got a part of it. A lot of people at the time the book came out thought I was coat-tailing my dad and everything. They did not know that I actually came up with the idea, spearheaded it and got all those cats involved with it. That was one of the best times of my life, man.”
Even though his calendar stays filled with the projects that he’s concentrating on as a solo artist, Wayne Baker Brooks still makes sure to leave enough open time to take the stage with Lonnie and Ronnie, treating blues fans worldwide to the real-deal as a part of the Brooks Family Band.
“We just did a very successful mini-tour up in Canada and we’re looking to do a lot more,” Brooks said. “A lot of people know who my dad is and in the last decade or so, they’re learning who me and my brother are. But playing with my dad and brother is just so much fun. We’re all going to find time to make this happen a lot more these days.”
Not only does it give the Brooks kids an opportunity to spend time with their dad, the Brook Family Band gives Lonnie a chance to just focus on nothing but just playing the blues.
“The whole purpose of doing the Brooks Family Band is so my dad can relax,” Brooks said. “The only thing he has to do is turn on his amp, grab his guitar and get up there and turn the people on. So the role between Ronnie and I is to just let dad have fun and not have to worry about the stuff he has to when he’s running his band. We have a lot of fun when we do the Brooks Family Band and we plan to keep on doing it.”
Not content to just lay back and wait for people to discover the healing power of the blues on their own, the way Wayne Baker Brooks sees it; it’s his duty to personally help lead the un-initiated to the wonderful world of the blues.
“Blues music gets a bad rap. It’s usually associated with being down, sad and depressed. It has a negative name. But I look at blues music as an oxymoron,” said Brooks. “Because when you hear blues players play blues music, it’s joyous. You get up and dance and move around and get rid of your blues. But youngsters can’t seem to associate blues music with being a positive. But I truly believe that while blues was derived from hardships, it was a way to make people get over those hardships. That’s why blues is appreciated worldwide. When you listen to the blues, you tend to forget about your own blues.”
And if those efforts require the use of hip-hop – or other forms of popular music – to turn newcomers on to the blues, Brooks is more than willing to get involved on that level, as well.
The way he sees it, getting people to embrace the blues might help solve this country’s health-care crisis.
“I know it’s going to take me a long time to get the mainstream to appreciate what I’m doing, but if I could gather someone with a big name – like Kayne or Jay-Z – and get them in the studio, man you have no clue how many blues followers we’d have after that record,” he said. “I’m dying to do something like that. And the reason why is to turn more people on to the blues. That’s needed more than ever now. People are so eager these days to go to the doctor or the physiatrist or spend all this money on pills, when all you’ve got to do is go and support your local blues band. You’ll have a good time AND forget all your problems. That’s why those Blues Cruises are the biggest thing out there now. You’ve got whole week of just listening to the blues and having a damn good time. Those people have found that one week of the blues is worth 52 weeks of therapy.”