A few years ago I had the chance to interview Ronnie Baker Brooks for American Blues News. it was part of our Father’s Day special feature. ABN has since become dormant and the expansive content has been lost to the ether. Since Father’s Day is this weekend, I thought it would be a perfect time to throwback to that feature and this interview with one of the leading sons of the blues: Ronnie Baker Brooks, son of Lonnie Brooks.
Ronnie is on tour this summer with his own band and as a special guest with Big Head Todd & The Monsters. Tour dates can be found here: RBB Tour Dates. I’ve been fortunate too see Ronnie’s show and he always leaves it all on the boards. He is a veteran showman, skilled entertainer, and ace guitarist. His show will leave you wanting more.
Now let’s get in the WABAC machine and check in with Ronnie Baker Brooks circa spring 2011…
JK What was it like growing up with your Dad (Lonnie Brooks) as a famous blues musician?
RB When I was younger I didn’t realize what impact Dad had. He was just Dad around the house. Me and my brother Wayne used to just try to emulate Dad around the house with brooms, spoons, pots & pans, and when I went to see my Dad play at the Chicago Blues Fest when I was around 11 or 12 years old, that’s when I was like “Wow! This is not normal.” It was something special and something different. I didn’t really, really embrace it until I got on the road with him after I graduated high school. That’s when I realized it was so special.
JK Did you go out with him as a kid accompanying Dad or as a musician?
RB Well, I went out with him on weekends from around age 14 to 18. I would carry amplifiers, set up the stage, tune guitars, and sometimes he would let me play one song a night. Then when I graduated from high school I went out full time doing that – being a roadie. Whatever the band needed; I sold albums – back then it was vinyl – I set up the stage, drove the van, everything they needed and my Dad would reward me by letting me play one or two songs, then two led to four, then four led to one set and one set led to being in the band.
RB I started playing and my Dad started teaching me when I was six. My first time on stage in front of an audience I was nine, at a club called Pepper’s Hideout.
JK What was that like for you?
RB That was weird, man, because we always played with Dad at home and I felt pretty comfortable. It really kept me out of trouble because I grew up in the ghetto on the south side of Chicago. It was kinda rough over there. Being in the house playing music with my Dad kept me away from trouble and I really, really enjoyed it. I looked forward to it. Just to hang with my Dad and for him to give me that attention through music. I started playing on stage, my first time was at Pepper’s; it was packed and I had a mood ring on and it was turning all kinds of colors. My Mom was there with me and she was like “calm down, calm down. Just play like you do at home.” When she said that, it calmed me down and I got up on stage with him and the people didn’t believe it was me playing. They thought my Dad was playing so he held up his hands. When they saw it was me playing, they threw money on stage. I made more money than my Dad that night and I thought I was a superstar! I thought I made it, man.
JK So did you want to go back the next night?
RB Yeah! But my Dad said “we can’t have kids coming in there all the time.” It was a special occasion, like a birthday and coming home party. He had gone to Europe for six weeks or something like that and it happened to be around the time of my birthday. But, he said if I learned more songs he’d get me up there again. That was my big splash into the music business. I did some local TV commercials and I thought I was famous. It went to my head. Then I decided to quit and play basketball because my Dad said “You can’t do both.” You know, most of my friends, I didn’t have any that were playing music. Most guys I knew playing music were my Dad’s age. Most of my friends were playing basketball or football – some kind of sport. I told my Dad, I want to play basketball. Well, he said “You can’t do both. If you want to be good you’ve got to concentrate on one or the other.” He later said I broke his heart when I decided to play basketball (laughs). He didn’t tell me until I got back into music. But my Dad would play until 4 am, get up and take me to my games at 9 am, watch me play, take me to lunch, take a nap and he go back out to work that night. I had no idea he was thinking “he broke my heart.”
JK That’s a good Dad right there. He let you pursue what you wanted to do.
RB I’m glad I did it too. Basketball taught me teamwork that I apply to my band today. Everybody can’t have the ball at the same time. We all have our roles to play to make this work.
RB That’s right. Dad didn’t tell me until I was back into music and back out on the road – “You know you broke my heart.” I said “what do you mean?” He said, “When you decided to play basketball. And I’m so glad you’re back into music, but you’ve got to prove it to me this time.” He didn’t pay me. He took a lot of grief for taking me on the road. We were riding in the van and his band members were saying, “Man, we don’t need him. Why’s he out here?” But I wasn’t getting paid. I was out there just to help Dad. So I had to earn everybody’s trust. I loaded the van, tuned guitars; I was the roadie, the gopher guy. I did it so well that they depended on me. When I wasn’t there, they’d be asking “Hey, where’s Ronnie?” I didn’t realize he was preparing me for my own band. It was to prepare me to get my own career going. Everything from calling hotels, setting up load-in times, advancing the shows – it just prepared me. And I thank my Dad for that.
JK It sounds like he taught you the whole trade.
RB Yes, he did.
JK Were the guys openly hostile or just griping?
RB Some were, man. I had to earn it. And my father was always saying “Look, I don’t want anybody saying you got anything because I’m your Dad.” I had to prove it, and not only to the band, but to the audience too. I didn’t want anyone to say “He got this because of his Dad.” And, I didn’t my father to feel responsible for carrying me. I didn’t want that pressure on my father. So, I had to do three times the work to earn it. I still feel like that sometimes. I feel like the pressure is on, being his son I still feel like I have to do that for the music. Compared to rock & rollers, rappers and hip-hoppers, we have to work harder to prove we’re justified in being here.
JK I would think it would be harder to convince the audience. They might be thinking “Oh, it’s just his kid.”
RB You know man, I got that coming up. “What do you know about the blues? You don’t know no blues.” This was before Jonny Lang and Derek Trucks and all those guys getting those good contracts at a young age. When I was coming up it was “No, he don’t know nothing about the blues. What’re you talking about blues?” It made me dig in that hole a little harder and I did my homework and learned about all the previous blues musicians I could – Muddy, John Lee Hooker, I was listening to the raw stuff too like Son House and Lightnin’ Hopkins, and I was feeling it. But I always had to prove it. Koko Taylor, Eddy Clearwater, Son Seals, Luther Allison, they all said “Do this. You are the future. You’ve got to keep this music alive.” There were a few though that were like “Put that thing down! You don’t know blues.” And they weren’t giving out contracts like they are now.
JK Jonny Lang, Derek Truck, Joe Bonamassa – they all have something in common which is that they’re white. Younger people like you, Bernard Allison, Shemekia Copeland and so on get the interest from the blues labels but Trucks and Lang and the others get the interest of the big labels like Sony. Is that a cultural thing or is it just that the business doesn’t see you as a viable product? They’d rather sign Jay-Z and sell him to the black kids.
RB There you go. It boils down to money. The companies that put big money into an artist want to see it come back and it’s got to be a no-brainer. There are many great musicians out there deserving of that kind of attention but it comes down to money. In America, if you see something you can relate to you’ll support it. If they see a black kid playing blues, they think “Ah, I don’t know about blues.” But if they see some hip-hop, that’s the thing in their neighborhood. They can see themselves doing that. That’s the ticket out. They see them making money and in the ghetto you don’t want to be reminded of the tough times. They don’t want to hear about blues. But you know what, it’s an educational process. A lot of my friends who would’ve been teasing me about it back then love it now. You have to go through some of it maybe to understand it or enjoy it. Now they say, “Oh, now I know what they’re talking about.” Some of them come to my shows and tell me “I thought the blues was crying in your drink but you’re having fun!” It’s a hard thing to get across. I really believe that with the right African-American artist who had the chance, it would help the African-American kids back into the music. With Jonny Lang, Derek Trucks, & Joe Bonamassa the white kids see themselves so they think “I can do that.” Like “Mom, can I get a guitar like Jonny Lang?” You know? So they can relate quicker to them than they could me because they see themselves but it’s getting better and I’ll tell you what, I’m glad anybody listens to this music. No matter what color, how old or whatever, if we get one fan at a time I’m happy. If Derek Trucks gets 1,000 fans I hope they investigate more and find out about others. But that’s how it is. It’s been that formula for a long time. Eric Clapton and the British Invasion did the same thing for Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters. It took the Stones and those guys to bring that music back here for the people to appreciate it.
JK Yeah. It’s ridiculous.
RB Yeah. But I’m not the one who started this; I’m just out in it. Hopefully we can get past the barriers that our music inherited.
RB They love it now man. Especially when they come out to the shows. Plus, they don’t want to listen what they’re kids are listening to. Some of the people that teased me come looking for backstage passes now and want to hang. So, it’s weird. I’m just glad I was exposed to it early fro my father and absorbed it. Even today I think back to when I was first exposed to it at such an early age and I’m grateful for that.
JK Does your Dad still tour?
RB A little bit but not as much as he used to. He’s 77. Back when I was with him we’d do 250 to 300 dates a year. But it’s changed a bit. He doesn’t have gigs during the week like he used to. Dad is at an age where they can’t sell him the gig like they can me, you know like “this can really help your career.”
JK He doesn’t have to take gigs. I can’t believe he’s 77. I would never have guessed that.
RB He doesn’t look 77 and he doesn’t always act 77 (laughs). He’s got a brand new record coming out soon, I don’t know when, but it’s got new material he wrote. I’m really proud of him. The older you get the more difficult it gets. You’ve really got to love it to stay with it for so long. I’m glad to see it and I’m really looking forward to the record being released. It might motivate him to get out there and play more.
JK What about your brother Wayne; he has his own record label?
RB Yeah, he has his own record company. He has a new single out by rapper Twista. He still does his own thing and still plays with my dad when he does shows. We’re all going to get together and play some shows over the summer billed as the Brooks Family.
JK Any chance of a Brooks Family record?
RB I hope so. We’ve talked about it from time to time.
JK Were you and Wayne in your Dad’s band at the same time?
RB Yeah. He came up the same way I did; being a roadie and tech, you know. Dad sent us to blues college, man.
JK Were you one of the band members giving him crap when he came out on the road?
RB (laughs) Well, no. Really I made it easier for him because I broke the ice. He caught it too though. That’s just part of being the boss’s son. You’ve got to prove yourself and pull your own weight.
JK Was there any different audience reaction when both of you were in the band? Audiences can be cynical especially with two sons out there.
RB We didn’t hear any of it. In fact it was kinda the opposite. I’ve had grown men coming to me in tears talking about “It’s great you’re up there with your Dad. I wish I could have that relationship with my father,” you know, that kind of stuff.
JK Was there any sibling rivalry on stage?
RB (Hesitates) Well…yes. Like I said, we’re all competitive. Wayne & I used to play basketball together no one wanted to lose. We’d play cards with Mom & Dad and no one wanted to lose. So, yeah, we have that drive, but we love and respect each other. We would drive each other to be the best we could be. If you didn’t work at it, it would be exposed, but we all brought our A game and wanted everybody to look good.
JK I’ve noticed in your music there’s some funk and soul influences. Did you deliberately set out to be different from your Dad’s music or do you just feel it differently?
RB It’s a combination of both. Dad would always tell us to be ourselves. Learn all you can from what B.B.’s done, Albert’s done, but remember, you’re never going to be Albert King. But you can take what they had to offer and make it your own. So that enabled me to be different when I wrote songs. I listen to blues, gospel, soul, R&B, even country music – my Dad used to play country music once in a while – and Wayne and I grew up in the hip-hop era so there’s that too. I try to apply all that to what I do, but I never think this is going to be a blues song or this is going to be an R&B song; it comes out as it is.
JK What’s your guitar set-up like?
RB I have a number of guitar pedals (laughs). But it all boils down to your fingers. Even my Dad always said you’ve got to have your own fingerprint. I use pedals to get different sounds. I’ve got a three piece so I use them to keep it interesting; so every song doesn’t sound the same. But really it’s in the fingers. When Buddy guy sat in with me he played my guitars and amps and sounded just like Buddy Guy. I try to establish that for myself.
RB On the road, yeah. They’re durable. But I have about 35 guitars. I use a lot of them in the studio and every now and then I’ll take some on the road if it’s a short trip, but some of the Gibsons are delicate. So, I take my two main Strats – the one I call “The Baby” and the other one I call “Champagne.” Those two go on the road.
JK What guitars did your Dad use? He had some guitars that looked like Strats but I couldn’t tell what make they were.
RB He had custom made Strat style guitars by Flynn Guitars, but right now he uses Gibson SGs or the 335.
JK I was surprised to see him playing an SG on the album covers because he had a slinky, trebly tone I wouldn’t normally associate with a Gibson SG.
RB That SG on the front cover of Bayou Lightning was my first guitar. That’s my Gibson SG on there. That was the first professional grade guitar that he bought for me. He got me a cheaper Sears model before he knew I really wanted to play but then he got the SG. Before I went out on stage with him the first time he bought me that SG. Then when I quit to play basketball he took it back! Then he did Bayou Lightning and Turn On The Night with that guitar. I got it back when I returned to the band.
JK what do you have coming up?
RB I’ve got some touring, I’m always writing. I’m getting a record together, either at the end of this year or beginning of next. I’ll be doing some dates with my brothers and father this summer. I just produced Eddy Clearwater’s record and I produced this group from Holland called The Juke Joints. I did their CD which is out now over there. I’ve been making guest appearances. I’m on a record coming out soon called Living History of Chicago Blues or something like that. It’s got Buddy Guy, Magic Slim, James Cotton, Billy Branch, Lurrie Bell, John Primer; a bunch of people from Chicago got together and we did this record. I did my father’s song “Don’t Take Advantage Of Me.” I did that one over and one of my songs over. So, I’ve done everything for everybody else. I also helped Dad with his record. So now it’s time for me to do something for myself.
RB Yeah. Actually, they listen to me. They want me to take control. Eddy said “If you want something done you tell me what to do. I trust that you know what you’re talking about.” For him to give me that, it added a little pressure to be sure about what you want, because you’ve got a legend that you’re telling what to do. That was awesome. That was probably one of the best times of my life; for Eddy to embrace me like that and trusting me. First it was only supposed to be one or two songs and I went over to his house and it just started rolling. Ideas started popping out and everything was flowing really well and he said let’s just do the whole album. I’m honored. That’s something no one can take away from me. It was a great experience. He was the first person other than my father who said “I want you to do this for me and I know you can do it.”
JK What album is that?
RB West Side Struggle on Alligator Records.
JK To sum it up and put it in perspective for us, what do you think is the most important thing you learned from all the time spent playing with your Dad?
RB To be a man – a human being. Treat people how you want to be treated, be professional and do the best you can. You can’t please everyone but you can please yourself by doing your best. That keeps me grounded. You get compliments all the time. There are huge egos out here. You can’t start believing all that stuff and let it get to you. My Dad gave me a firm foundation to build on. That’s the best gift he gave me. He gave me a craft and I embraced it. He never forced us – me or Wayne – to do anything but once we showed him we wanted to do it, he sacrificed so we could do it. I’m very grateful and I feel like I have to carry this on; the family legacy.
My thanks to Ronnie baker Brooks for taking the time to explore his musical pedigree and I hope all you Fathers and Sons out there enjoy Father’s Day 2014.