Ronnie Baker Brooks: Keeping The Blues Alive, Family Style
JAM Magazine Speaks Candidly With Blues Royalty, Ronnie Baker Brooks
By David Brais
Photos by David Brais
Ronnie Baker Brooks is blues royalty. The son of blues guitar legend Lonnie Brooks, you would think growing up in the shadows of a blues icon would create undo pressure to be yourself on stage. Not this bluesman. He embraces the challenges that comes with the last name with honor and passion, and adds credence to the moniker, First Family of Blues. His particular style of Chicago blues has been performed on stages around the world. It honors the true torch bearers of this unique sound which includes Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Luther Allison and his father.
After a recent, electrifying performance at the famed Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland, Ohio, Ronnie Baker Brooks sat down with Jam Magazine to discuss a wide range of topics from Blues in the modern era, to young people understanding and accepting the art form, to legendary blues figures that helped shape the world he performs in.
JAM: Great show tonight Ronnie!
Ronnie Baker Brooks - Thanks man.
JAM: Let's get right to it. What is your definition of a "Bluesman?"
Good question. A Bluesman is a guy that lived the life, lived the experience of what he sings about, embraced it and accepted it. That's my definition. You've got to believe every word you sing.
JAM: Does a Bluesman actually have to play and instrument?
No, he can sing or he can just listen to the blues. You know, listening to the music, loving the music, is just as important as playing it. I know a lot of people that are just like that. They can't play an instrument, but they love the blues. They call themselves Bluesman or Blues woman. You don't necessarily have to play the music in order to relate to it. Just live your life every day and embrace it. .
JAM: Which side of Chicago are you from?
JAM: I ask because in your opening number you made a reference how the North side accepted you yet the South side did not.
JAM: Is that true?
At one time, Chicago was predominantly White on the North side and Black on the south. It's a reference to that. White people embraced the blues when I played there. Black people you had to literally pull them out to come and see you.
JAM: Why do you think that is?
I think the older black people of Chicago, most of them, migrated from the South. They lived that life and were trying to get away from it. Listening to the blues reminded them of what they had left behind. White people, on the other hand, loved the music. White people that listened to the Rolling Stones, Clapton, Led Zeppelin, they found out these people got it from musicians that were playing on the South side. (Laughs) The blues was new music to them, so you know, they accepted it. The funny thing is it took white musicians over in Europe to embrace the blues in order for it to be welcomed back where it originally started out.
JAM: Because of the blues circles your father traveled in, you were exposed to the greats. Did they ever feel cheated, or have hard feelings, towards people like Clapton or Zeppelin?
Not the people I have been around. Most of the successful people that have been doing this were happy that someone was out there helping exposing their music to a broader audience. There may have been a handful of musicians who were resentful. But here's the thing. When a musician is true to the music, and I don't care what color they are, it don't matter who it is as long as the music's getting out to the people. I know for a fact my father never resented any musician that embraced the blues. B.B. King, Buddy Guy, none of them was ever like that.
JAM: It's funny you mention your father because last night I was flipping around the channels and I came across Blues Brothers 2000. Who do I see? Lonnie Brooks.
(Smile and laughs)
JAM: The first Blues Brothers movie was one of my all-time favorites. When I saw John Lee Hooker's scene I said to myself, "I've got to find out more about this music."
Right, right, right. This genre of music is an educational process. I always say that. The blues is a learning experience. You've got to go through something to get to it man. I think that's probably why a younger audience hasn't embraced it more. I think that's probably why the black audience turned their back on it. They lived it once and didn't want to relive it again through music. The younger black audience doesn't realize what we are doing. When they come to see us they are like, "Wow, I didn't know the blues could be like that. I always thought it was like my grandma's music." When they see band like us today, the music is more up to date. I can't sing about picking cotton, plowing behind a mule, I never did any of that. But I did live on the South side of Chicago, in the ghetto, and I can talk about that. I can tell you about how I had to make mayonnaise sandwiches. I can tell you about heartache. I can tell you how good a woman makes me feel. So it ain't necessarily all that "crying in your drink blues." That's part of it, different elements of it, and when the younger people come out to see us perform, they're like, "Wow! I didn't know it was like this."
JAM: You have mad, mad, mad skills on the guitar.
(smiles) Thanks man.
Do you think younger audiences don't want to take the time to learn an instrument? I know Hip Hop is really big, and I'm not putting the genre down, but rhyming words is not like picking up an instrument and putting your heart and soul into it.
The blues is a type of social commentary like rap music. It takes time and skill to learn the art of rap and do it well.
JAM: I won't disagree with that.
To a certain extent, I do think your observation about picking up an instrument is correct. With rap, first of all, it is instant money. When it broke open, everyone was getting rich real quick. I don't care who you were, if you had a hit single, you made a lot of money. If you play the blues, it takes a long time to get any money. (laughs) You have got to love this music in order to p lay it. I think that's another reason why young black people didn't jump on the blues. First of all, they didn't want to listen to a record grandma and grandpa listened to. They wanted to be a little rebellious, just like rock and roll was. So they came up with something new. Then they realized, "Hey, we can get rich off this. I want to get out of the ghetto, drive a nice car and live in a nice home now. I don't want to wait until I'm 50 or 60 years old." That type of thinking inspired a lot of the younger black audience to do rap.
JAM: Chicago became the hub of the blues due in part to the northern migration of blacks from the South. Today, however, you just don't see the Chicago blues being exported outside the city limits like it once was. Why do you think that is?
There are still a lot of musicians there, but they don't get out on the road like they use to. I remember playing with my father about 20 years ago. We had at least 20 bands out of Chicago on the road touring all the time. Since that time, the venues have dried up. You don't have many clubs to play in anymore during the week, just the weekend ones. When you have a band on the road you've got to work almost every day to keep the machine going. So that deters a lot of people from coming out on the road. Chicago doesn't have that problem. There are plenty of places to play, so blues bands, especially the good ones, just don't travel.
JAM: I went to Chicago a few years ago with the intent of meeting Buddy Guy at his blues club, Legends. I'm assuming you've played his club on several occasions.
I now Buddy well. We've not only jammed on stage together, I practically grew up with him. My mother introduced Buddy to his first wife. He used to live in the building my family lived in when he first got off the train in Chicago. He knew my auntie's and uncle's; they lived in the same building.
JAM: When was that?
Back in the 50's. I've know Buddy all my life.
JAM: I recognized his style in your playing when you performed the last song of your first set.
Yes, "Take Me with You."
JAM: I noticed some of that, some B.B. King.
JAM: And some Lonnie Brooks?
JAM: Is it safe to say that Buddy Guy has had as much influence on you as your father?
He's definitely near the top. Actually, Buddy was supposed to play on "Take Me with You" as a guest on the album. We had it all set up, but he had some commitments he had to fulfill on the road, and he was gone for a long time. I had a deadline to meet and had to finish the record. I grew up listening to Buddy before he was famous. I loved him then and I love him now. I'm very proud to know him and to see him continue to do it to this day. I think he's taken the blues to a whole other level from where he originally got it, and that would be Muddy Waters. Muddy and them guys laid the foundation down. Here's the way I look at it. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird played a big part in shining a bright light onto the NBA. Jordan took it to a whole new level. That's what Buddy has done with the blues.
JAM: Buddy is not a stage hog by any stretch of the imagination and I noticed you are the same way.
I got that from my dad. I played with him for 13 years and he would always share the wealth - sometimes too much. (Laughs) I would say "Dad, they are here to see you!" (laughs) and he would just shrug his shoulders. I try to keep my guys inspired and wanting to play with me.
JAM: Tell me a bit about your band.
My drummer is C.J. Tucker, he's an amazingly talented man. Carlton Armstrong plays bass and he's been with me nine years. C.J.'s been with me for 4 and half years.
JAM: You write most of your songs. I've read where you said your dad taught you the techniques of song writing, so I'm curious. Do you draw inspiration from lyrics, or is it music first?
Both really. The two feed off one another. Usually, I hear a guitar riff because I'm always sitting around playing. I get a riff, record it, come back, work with it and come up with some words to go with it. Or, I get a melody in my head and the lyrics just hit me (snaps fingers) like that. I write em' down, come back to it and mess around with it on guitar. Then I create a groove that fits the melody. Sometimes I'm lucky. Most of the time, it seems, I'm in the bathroom when the inspiration for a song comes to me musically and lyrically. There's something relaxing about a shower that seems to inspire me. When I am relaxed and comfortable, the creative juices flow. I've written many songs in the shower. (Laughs!)
JAM: The infamous blues label, Chess Records, is quite famous in Chicago. It was also featured in the movie "Cadillac Records". You probably are familiar with some of their artists in real life. Two of the best songwriters Chess ever had were Willie Dixon and Chuck Berry.
I got to meet both of them. When I was a youngster, Willie Dixon and my dad taught me how to sing. We did a show and Willie came down. My dad said to him, "You need to talk to my son." Let me tell you, I was scared. I knew Willie from listening to all the Muddy records and I was thinking, "Wow! This is Willie Dixon." He sat down, and said, "Son, you don't have to be a great singer. You just have to learn how to deliver the song." He said, "Howlin' Wolf wasn't the greatest singer, but he had a style, his own style. He learned how to deliver the song. That's all you have to do. If you're talkin', deliver it." Those comments changed my whole thought process. It was a great learning experience for me to get that from him. He is the one that taught me that the Blues is the facts of life. When you write a song, just tell the truth.
JAM: Rolling Stone Magazine came out with their list of top 100 guitarists.
I haven't seen it yet.
JAM: I am going to run through the top 5, and you tell me if and how they have influenced your play or the music industry as a whole?
JAM: At number five is Robert Johnson.
Robert Johnson yep. "Sweet Home Chicago", my dad recorded that song back in 1980 at the Chicago Blues Fest. It was a compilation album - Willie Dixon, Coco Taylor, Son Seals, Muddy Waters - and it was up for a Grammy. He didn't win, but I grew up listening to that song and I didn't know Robert Johnson did it. That song was huge in Chicago. They played it at ballgames and everywhere. When I discovered it was Robert Johnson, I could hear all the people he had influenced with his music.
JAM: Eric Clapton is No. 4.
Eric Clapton opened doors that nobody else could open, and he's still doing it. He is true to the music. It's not a fake. It's not just something he's just playing. I met him and Robert Cray several times and we hung out. He is true to the craft and I respect that. I really do.
JAM: Number three on the list was B.B. King.
(Sighs and smiles) Buddy Guy and I talked about this one time. He told me every guitar should have B.B. King's name on it because he changed the whole game. Before he came on the scene, and this is what Buddy and my Dad told me, a lot of people were playing staccato, like T-Bone Walker. T-Bone was the Godfather of the Blues guitar. B.B. came along and started squeezing the strings because he was trying to play like a slide. So, he'd bend the strings to get that slide effect. He was trying to sound like Elmore James and in the process, changed the whole game. Now everyone squeezes the strings. In my opinion, he should be the highest paid artist of all time. That's my opinion. Not only for what he plays and has done - that alone is enough - but for the person and man he is. Not only is B.B. the "King of the Blues" he's the king of charm. He could charm a snake. I've seen it done. I've witnessed it several times. Just being in the same room with him makes me happy.
JAM: Number two on this Rolling Stone list is one of my favorites, Duane Allman.
Duane Allman, a hell of a slide player man. Many people don't realize, outside of the Blues or Allman Brothers stuff, how much he played on. He changed the game too.
JAM: The No. 1 guitarist, and I hear it in your style of playing, Jimi Hendrix.
(Big smile) Hendrix, ohâ€¦â€¦yeah, (Laughs). You know, it's like he took the guitar to a whole other atmosphere. (Laughs) Hendrix is someone you can always learn from. I could listen to "Machine Gun" today, and I've heard it a million times probably, and I'm gonna hear something else. He came at the right time. He was heaven sent, man, a special gift from God to us musicians. He was connected to the soul, he was connected to the guitar, and he played it like it was a part of his body. His style of playing had everything in it. First of all, there was the undeniable skill to play his instrument in such a way you can pick through it and learn something new every time. Second, on an emotional level, it can get you really made trying to pick through it. Hendrix had that gift. He played with different combinations of bands but still made it his own thing. That's the kind of foundation we are trying to catch. He listened to Albert King, Chuck Berry, B.B. King, Bo Diddley, Bob Dylan and those cats. He just put the right recipe together and it will never be made again.
JAM: That may be true but you are giving it a good run.
Thanks man. I can never play like any of these cats. What I attempt to do is play with the same spirit. I channel Albert Collins. I channel Hendrix. I channel Stevie Ray Vaughan. Those are the people that have touched me. I can never duplicate what they played. I try to imitate some of the notes, but it doesn't come out sounding like they did it. What I can do is be me. If I play "Red House" or "Pride and Joy" I could never play like Stevie or Jimmy Page, but I can certainly perform the music with spirit.
JAM: The best part of a live blue's show is when you don't try to play a song exactly like the original artist.
You're right. That's like tonight when I played Stevie Ray's "Crossfire." I changed it. People in the audience probably didn't recognize what I'd done until I started singing. Listen, I could never play like Stevie, but hopefully I captured his spirit in the way I interpreted the music.
JAM: You play like Ronnie.
(Laughs) I try. Did you name all of the guitarists on your list?
JAM: I have 5 more that are on the top 100 list that I added for the interview because I hear these as influences in you. Tell me if I am correct? Lightning Hopkins?
JAM: Eddie Hazel of Parliament
JAM: Am I off on that one?
No man. (Laughs)
JAM: Bo Diddley
Yep, I played with Bo.
JAM: Buddy Guy.
JAM: Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert King?
JAM: I recently saw those two perform together on a PBS program. Watching the show, Stevie's style of playing reminded me at times of you. He was the young blues playing guy jamming with the established legend. At any given time, you knew Stevie Ray could steal the show from Albert King, but he didn't do it. When you have been on stage with an established Blues artist, and know in your heart that at any given moment you could take over the stage, is it hard to resist the temptation?
(Laughs) Oh yeah. Shit, every night with my daddy. (Laughs) Or Buddy (Laughs). I'm playing down at his club, Legends, with my eyes closed and I hear this applause. I'm thinking the people are really digging my playing. I open my eyes and Buddy is standing next to me. I'm like, oh shit! The first thing I do is take my hand off the guitar and he says, "No, play. You play!" And I played with him, but with the utmost respect. In order to drive a car you have to know how to ride. When it's your time to get in the driver's seat, then YOU drive. When it's not your turn, let the king have the wheel. (Laughs) I learned that from my dad. What I try to do is make that ride as smooth as possible for whoever I'm playing with on stage. I never try to upstage anybody. Now, Luther Allison, that's a different story. He used to make me play. He challenged me, "No let's play. Play, PLAY!" We were playing down at Buddy's club and he did that to me. I looked in his eyes and he meant business. I forgot what song we were playing, forgot what key it was in. We were just soulfully connected, and when I came out of it, people were screaming and hollering. Man, I will never forget that. He said, "Ronnie, when you come and play with me I want you to really play. When you do, it gives me the spirit. I want you to do that every time we get together." You see, out of respect, I would always take the backseat to Luther and let him do his thing. He wanted no part of it. With him it was like bring it on, play it. He would challenge you musically, which in itself was very deep and spiritual.
JAM: I looked at your tour schedules covering the past few years and I didn't see Austin, Texas listed.
Ah man, we use to play Austin, a place called Antone's, at least two or three times a year. It dried up down in Texas. We would play down in Texas for a week and not in the same place. I mean we would go from the top of Texas to the bottom. Not any more. They got a lot of great musicians down there and I think they are just stinkin' with them to play locally.
JAM: Since Jam Magazine is based out of Dallas maybe we can give the blues some more exposure down there?
JAM: Thanks for the interview and good luck with your tour of Europe.