Ronnie Baker Brooks comes from the house of down-home blues
“The Torch” of the blues has been passed by the elders to Ronnie Baker Brooks.
Evidence of this can be heard on a track on Brooks’ third album, on which bluesmen Willie Kent, Eddy Clearwater, Jimmy Johnson and Lonnie Brooks introduce and perform on the song “The Torch of the Blues.”
Ronnie Baker Brooks is qualified for the task and not just for his guitar-playing, singing and songwriting. Being the son of blues great Lonnie Brooks, Ronnie has a deep understanding and appreciation of the music. He’s new school but he comes from the old school.
“My generation can feel my blues and dance to it and the generations from before me can say, ‘Yeah, the boy’s done his homework,’ ” Ronnie Baker Brooks said.
And when Brooks says homework, he’s talking about his own house.
Hall of famers in the house
“Junior (Wells) and Son Seals and Koko Taylor used to come over to the house,” he said. “I didn’t realize who they were. They were just other musicians to me. When I got older I realized this is not normal. That’s when I was like, ‘OK, now I have an obligation here to continue that legacy for my generation and the generation after me.’ “
Brooks’ mother and Buddy Guy’s first wife were best friends, so the Guy and Brooks children, including Ronnie’s brother Wayne Baker Brooks, grew up spending time at each other’s homes in Chicago.
“I would see him playing and I didn’t realize that was Buddy Guy,” said Brooks, whose biggest idol was his father. In fact, his reverence for Lonnie Brooks was a major obstacle when he began learning to play guitar.
“I was intimidated by my father,” Brooks said. “Even today I look at him like some people look at Elvis Presley or the Beatles. I never thought I could do what he was doing, but my father was always going, ‘Yes you can; you can do it.’ I couldn’t even play in front of him. I used to have to turn my back. He said ‘If you can’t play in front of me how are you going to play in front of some people?’ ”
Albert Collins, who was like an uncle to Ronnie, helped him overcome his trepidation.
“My father lit the fire and Albert Collins threw gas on it,” he said. “He said, ‘Yes you can play, boy. All you have to do is listen. Always keep your ears open to any musician that’s playing anything. The horn player, you listen to him because he’s going to phrase something different that you would phrase.’ That’s where he said he got his own style, from listening to horn players and organ players.”
Like Collins, Brooks has a very aggressive guitar style, with obvious influences of rock ‘n’ roll.
Lonnie Brooks was called by friends as “king of the jukebox” because in his house he would play the Top 40 songs of the time along with every other style all day long. But after midnight it was the low-down blues.
Ronnie Baker Brooks, who has composed every song on his three CDs, says he grew up with rock ‘n’ roll, pop, country, reggae and gospel. His new album, “The Torch” even includes a song with some vocals from Memphis hip-hopper Al Kapone.
“It’s a hip-hop world right now,” Brooks said. “I grew up during the beginning of the big splash. And I like some of it. So I thought it would be a cool idea to get a nice groove and throw in some of that, but keep the authenticity of the blues in there.”
Brooks began playing the guitar at the age of 6, but he spent much of his youth playing basketball and doing other things with his friends. He says for a while he didn’t appreciate the blues, and for a greater amount of time neither did his friends. Those are the ones who now ask for back-stage passes.
One of the bluesmen who came to the Brooks’ house was Wayne Bennett, the guitar player for Bobby “Blue” Bland. He taught the youngster how to play “Hideway.” As an adult, Brooks sat in with Bobby “Blue” Bland.
“He saw me playing and he couldn’t believe it,” Brooks said. “He said, ‘Oh my god, I remember you when you were a little baby.’ I played ‘Hideway’ for him and it was a proud moment. When I was younger I didn’t realize how important Wayne Bennett was to the blues.”
Brooks learned a valuable lesson about performing from Collins. He told the story about a memorable concert at which Collins also played.
“One time we were in L.A. doing a show and I was messing up and Albert was looking at me,” Brooks said. “He grabbed me and said ‘Boy, don’t nobody know you’re messing up but you.’ He said, ‘You quit frowning up there.’ Because, when I mess up I frown and get mad at myself. He said ‘Next time, smile.’ And I tried that and you know it’s true. Nobody knows your messing up at times but you. So he helped me build confidence in myself.”
Bound for Lake Tahoe
Brooks has earned the respect of the old-school bluesmen.
Before a recent appearance at the Crystal Bay Casino, Chicago slide guitarist Ed Williams of Lil’ Ed and the Imperials was asked if there were any new, young blues players he liked.
“Two who I have noticed are Ronnie Baker Brooks and Wayne Baker Brooks,” Lil’ Ed said.
Brooks will play Oct. 27 at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe with a show called The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Revue Tour. The show is presented by Tommy Castro and his band and includes saxophone/pianist Deanna Bogart and harmonica player Magic Dick, formerly of the J. Geils Band. Brooks is the final member who comes on stage as the show reaches a rockin’ peak.
“Ronnie Baker Brooks is a bona fide member of Chicago blues royalty,” said Castro, who selected all the members of the tour. “He literally inherited blues from his father.”
Lonnie Brooks continues to tour and record but sadly many, many bluesmen have died in recent years, including Collins, Bennett and Kent.
Ronnie Baker Brooks knew them all and keeps them immortalized in his latest album. The title “Torch of the Blues” could be a tip of the hat to Bennett, who played on Bland’s 1967 album “Touch of the Blues,” and there is a clear homage to Kent, who penned the classic “Born In The Delta,” on his opening track, a blues-rock anthem, “Born in Chicago.”
The young man has done his homework.