Ronnie Baker Brooks said wants to keep his father’s legacy vibrant, and he’s going about that mission with the same approach used by his father: With hard work and humility.
He released an album this January, “Times Have Changed,” which includes the final recording sessions of his father Lonnie Brooks, who died in April. It also has the last recordings for Bobby Blue Bland, who died in 2013, and one of the last recordings for trumpeter Ben Cauley and guitarist Teenie Hodges.
Because he’s been so busy with touring, appearing on other artists’ records and producing albums for other artists, Ronnie Baker Brooks hasn’t released his own since 2006. He employed the esteemed Steve Jordan to produce “Times Have Changed,” which was released last January. Brooks said he and Jordan have some of the same methods but “Steve is on a higher level.”
“I just came in open with whatever he wanted to do and let him direct the show, whereas when I produce, I usually have that role. Steve created a cool environment and that makes the whole production go smoother. You get a good team with very talented musicians and make good song selections. I definitely will try to implement some of the stuff I learned from him.”
His attitude mirrors that of his father, who said before a 2009 Lake Tahoe appearance: “I thought everybody was better than me. I always was fighting to be as good as the one I thought was the best. It helped me a lot. Because if you’re satisfied you stop, and I never did stop. I always tried to do more than what I’d been doing. Every time I hit the stage, I try harder. Sometime it doesn’t work, but sometime it does.”
While the majority of artists who migrated north to make Chicago the blues hub were from Mississippi, Lonnie Brooks was from Louisiana. He was embraced in the community by bluesmen including Magic Sam and Muddy Waters and went on to become a star himself. That led to an interesting childhood for his eldest musical son.
“Buddy Guy’s first wife and my mom were best friends at the time when I was a little baby,” Ronnie Baker Brooks said. Koko Taylor often visited, Hubert Sumlin, Eddy Clearwater and Wayne Bennett, who played with Bobby Blue Bland, most notably on the iconic “Stormy Monday.”
“(Bennett) came over to the house many times to practice with Dad and showed me how to play ‘Hideaway’ by Freddie King,” he said. “We had a bunch of people come to the house and it was fun. I didn’t realize what it meant back then. It was almost like an uncle or auntie coming by, but now as I’ve gotten older I really understand that it was a unique situation.”
“There was a lot of music in the house. Dad was just into everything and I was gravitated toward the blues. The Delta stuff with Muddy, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins. I just embraced it early on. My friends were listening to R&B like Rick James, Michael Jackson and Prince and some of my friends were into Phil Collins and the Stones, but none of them were into blues.
“Then hip-hop came along and it just knocked everything out the window. I was a teenager when that came explosion hit and I was into some of that, too. So I was exposed to a lot of things being the son of a musician, but I just gravitated toward the blues.”
Brooks laughed that his friends who used to disparage blues music now ask for backstage passes.
During his high school years, Brooks would perform in Lonnie Brooks’ bands on weekends and summer vacations. He became a full-time member in 1989.
“(My father) would push me and give me a lot of freedom that probably in a normal situation I wouldn’t have had,” Brooks said. “He pushed me to sing. He pushed me to write my own material so he was setting me up for today and so, yes, there was a little pressure because I didn’t want anyone to say that I got a gig with him just because I was his son. He saw the work ethic in me, and he gave me the opportunity. So everything I’m doing today, I owe it all to Dad.”
Ronnie Baker Brooks’ new album features not only Lonnie Brooks and Bobby Blue Bland, but also Steve Cropper, “Big Head” Todd Mohr, Angie Stone, Lee Roy Parnell, Eddie Willis, Al Kapone and Felix Cavaliere.
Producer Jordan won or was nominated for Grammy Awardd for his work with Keith Richards, Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, Bruce Springsteen, John Scofield, Herbie Hancock and John Mayer. His is a member of Mayer’s trio and formerly played in the bands for the television programs Saturday Night Live and David Letterman. He also was the drummer for the Blues Brothers, although he did not appear in the movie.
Jordan had the connections to bring the well-known artists to contribute to “Times Have Changed.” It also brought a studio reunion with Jordan and Cropper, who also played with the Blues Brothers and is a legendary session player at Stax Records in Memphis. Sessions for Brooks’ album were in Memphis and Nashville.
“Everybody in the industry knows Steve Jordan, and if they don’t, they know of him,” Brooks said. “Whenever he makes a call, if they’re available, they come down.
“To have Steve Cropper grace the record was an honor. I was a little intimidated at first because I’m looking at these great musicians but once the music started flowing around the room I lost all of that and it felt good. And I think you can feel that that on the record.”
Jordan suggested Brooks record some covers. The first one Brooks came up with was “Old Love,” which he has performed live. Jordan, who also played the tune live in concert with Eric Clapton, loved the idea and reached out to Bland.
Before he sang the song, Bland spoke with the musicians for an hour and a half.
“It was like school was in session,” Brooks said. “When he walked through the door you could feel this aura around him. He talked about how he got his style and how you can’t rush the song, you’ve got to get into the lyrics. And then it was time to do it. And that was the perfect set up to make the record.”
“Times have Changed” also includes one of the final recording sessions for Ben Cauley, who was the only survivor of the airplane crash that killed Otis Redding. Cauley was a trumpet player for the Bar-Kays. He died in 2015.
It also was one of the final recording session for guitarist Teenie Hodges, who died in 2014. Hodges co-wrote “Love and Happiness” and “Take Me to The River” with Al Green.
Brooks said he was offered solace from Jordan: “Well, Ronnie, you have the legacy record.”
- Related story: The time I met my hero Lonnie Brooks.