The first time I saw Ronnie Baker Brooks was in 1993 during the B.B. King, Eric Johnson tour that year. He was playing as a sideman in his Dad's Band (Lonnie Brooks) who is one of the old guard of the blues. Ronnie's playing stuck out (at least to me) and I was seriously impressed with his guitar chops. I met him for a short period of time later in the day when he was hanging around the soundboard. He was kind of quiet and reserved. In the years since, I had seen him with his Dad's band. The last time he did a half-hour solo set which included some really smokin guitar. Lonnie Brooks is one of the great blues showman and Ronnie has learned his lesson well. Ronnie's brother (Wayne Baker Brooks) is now filling in the side guitar slot on Lonnie Brooks Band while Ronnie is touring as a solo act.
I was able to interview Ronnie Baker Brooks between sets at the City Jazz Club at Universal Studios here in Orlando Florida. Anyone who enjoys blues music should add Ronnie Baker Brooks to their list of must see performers. RBB is the entire package, guitar chops, showmanship and a great singing voice. He left the audience at City Jazz wanting more and highly impressed everyone there.
Murf: I always like to ask, how did you start playing guitar and how you got into playing, I'm assuming that your family is really musical.
RBB: Yeah, my dad (Lonnie Brooks) started teaching me when I was six years old, and I got into it because of him. I was trying to be like him around the house and listening to the songs that he played and ….you know….he got me into it….started teaching me when I was about six. The first time I was on stage I was nine years old.
Murf: That was with your dad, right?
RBB: Yeah…with my dad, Lonnie Brooks, yeah.
Murf: That was the deal where he told you if you learned a certain song, he would let you play it on stage?
RBB: Right…….well, he was on tour, over in Europe for….like three months or so, and uh….he used to call home and check on us…and I wanted to go with him…when he went to Europe, and he goes "you gotta stay home and go to school" you know. And so when he called home, I go "I want to go next time or I want to go with you when you play around Chicago" and he goes if you learn two songs by the time I get home you can go. So I learned 'Messin with the Kid' by Jimmy Wells and 'You Consider Baby' by Noel Fullsom and he came home, they had a welcome home party for him…..at a place called Peppers, in Chicago. And he got me up….he kept his promise. I got up and played man, and that was the first time I was on stage.
Murf: Is your whole family musical, your brothers' play too, right?
RBB: My brother Wayne, Wayne Baker Brooks, he took my place in dad's band, he plays. My sisters all sing, but they don't do it seriously, they just do it for a hobby….they're pretty good actually.
Murf: You must have some hellacious family jam sessions?
RBB: Ha…..(Laughing)…Yeah…Christmas time, Thanksgiving time, you know, any of the holidays, everyone's home. You know, me, dad and Wayne get out the guitars…..my sisters sing you know. It's fun.
Murf: That's got to be a blast?
RBB: It's fun!
Murf: Do you find a lot of difference between being the front man rather than being the sideman or second guitar guy?
RBB: YES!! A lot of the responsibilities are on you. And some of that is good; some of that is hard, you know. I'm enjoying it…..I took on a lot of responsibilities with my dad's band. You know he gave me a lot of things to do…..and that is totally different when you make the final decisions. (Laughing) But…it's fun when you get to play what you want to play. When you want to play it. So…..That's the cool part about it. But I do miss playing with my dad. I had so much fun playing with him. We get together every now and then when he's off….and I'm playin…he'll come around and when I'm off and he's playin, I'll go where he's at you know.
Murf: I know the last time I saw Lonnie Brooks, he let you take about a half hour set in the middle of the night.
RBB: That's what I'm saying, he gave me a lot of responsibility, and he prepared me for this. To make my transition a bit smoother.
Murf: Did you work out your material when you were touring with him or did that develop while you were in the studio or where?
RBB: He (Lonnie Brooks) always preached "do your own material" you know. I mean we do cover songs and that…….but it's predominately original material….and dad always preached that. You can always do……someone else's song…but you never do like they'll do it so….do your own songs. So I try to keep that…you know….in mind.
Murf: Did you do anything music wise, before your dad's band or did you start in your dad's band?
RBB: Well I started off with dad man…..I started off roadying, and as a guitar tech, and I did some road managing……and I moved up to doing one song a night…..and then..…eventually I was in the band. And once I got in his band….from that I got to play with Koko Taylor, she took me out on some tours, and Junior Wells, he took me out on some tours…..Elvin Bishop took me out on some tours……and it just pieced together like that….but never full time with any band but my dad's band.
Murf: You've played with a lot of people.,…Stevie Ray, Albert Collins and all these other guys. When you get up on stage…is it intimidating….it's probably intimidating and really cool at the same time?
RBB: Initially…..It was….(laughing)…but after you got into it…you hear them playing and you get the spirit…you forget about it. You always keep a sense of respect for them.
Murf: You sorta get to the point where you say "Hey….I can do this"?
RBB: You do YEAH…..It's a confidence booster. I mean if you can get up on stage with Albert Collins and Stevie Ray Vaughan man…..that's….that's the top of the line, stretching out to do that with Stevie...and Luther Allison, Jimmy Wells and you know….several people like that and that category man. It's something cool that I can never forget and no one can take that away from me.
Murf: They say that playing as a sideman is really good training for forming your own band.
RBB: Yeah….yes….your in the trenches, you see someone else make the decisions, and see how they handle it. And then you take what fits you and apply it to what you want to do….and take what you want to do and apply it to what you want to reach. To what you want to reach you know.
Murf: The songs on your CD (Gold Digger), did you work those out on your own, or while you were touring with your dad or in the studio or what?
RBB: I wrote a lot of them while I was with dad. And some of them after I left on my own when I knew that I was going to do the record….but most of them was when I was touring with dad.
Murf: What's your best performance memory?
RBB: I don't know…..I don't know if I had one yet (laughing)….I don't know….getting to the people man….you know…..I try to feel good about all of my performances…to give it everything I got. You know…even if it's five people or five thousand or five hundred thousand, I just try to touch them.
Murf: You're certainly doing that tonight out there. You started your own label and have your own website [www.ronniebakerbrooks.com ] Do you have any comments on how you feel the Internet will help or hinder musicians.
RBB: Yeah….man….it helps a lot, you get to touch people all over the world…..you know….and they get to hear you. It's a great marketing tool but the thing is getting them to know that you exist….you know. It's great to have that …..access to you 24 hours a day.
Murf: On song writing you stated that you have to feel your music. Is there any particular way you approach your songs, or do they just sorta jump out at you.
RBB: They usually come at me man….I never try….. to write a song, blues or pop or rock, just let it come as it comes….and deliver them as I feel them.
Murf: Whatever happens......happens?
RBB: Yeah…yeah….that's how I usually…that's the approach that I take.
Murf: Any story on the tigers on the photos from your official web site?
RBB: (Laughing) I get a lot of questions about that….mostly from women. Uh…..it was a friend of mine, he lives in Gary Indiana. He's a famous tattoo artist, he has tigers and he has leopards and all these exotic animals and he like "Ronnie, why don't you come over and take pictures with the tigers" and he says "Lenny Kravitz took pictures with the tigers…come on over and take a picture". So that tiger that's in the picture is the same tiger that Lenny Kravitz took a picture with and I just thought that would be cool for a promo shot….and we put it out.
Murf: Were you nervous sitting there with all that tiger meat?
RBB: At first…at first man….cause I was sitting there and they still have teeth. They declawed them but they still have teeth and that was a hell of an experience to see an animal like that coming at you but once you got used to them, they are like a pet.
Murf: You've toured overseas. Any comments between differences between overseas and the United States?
RBB: I toured over there many times with dad and I went over there on my own. It's great, they show you a lot of love over there, and there's a lot of appreciation over there. They don't take you for granted over there cause they know that this is…..an American art form that they don't get all the time over there. They take advantage of the opportunity and they show a lot of love and appreciation to the musicians. I like going over there but I love coming back home (laughing)…I love it here!
Murf: Obviously Stevie Ray Vaughan was an influence on you, do you have any other specific influences that you care to mention?
RBB: Jimi Hendrix of course…..uh….Albert Collins…..Freddy King, Albert King….my dad….my dad was the one that lit the fuse man….he's the one that got me started …and actually I was kinda so much like him, I had to change my style.
Murf: That one song you do where you do bits and pieces of different styles of all these guitar players is kinda cool.
RBB: Yeah…..Johnny Hooker and Junior Wells, Koko Taylor and Duke Allison and all those…that song is called 'Make These Blues Survive' and is like a tribute to those guys….cause when I was touring with my dad, we played with them a lot, and they would tell me…well you're the one whose gotta take over after we're gone you know…so I kinda did that for them.
Murf: There's a lot of blues players out there right now…..really young, I think that's healthily for the blues, how do you feel about it?
RBB: I feel great about it man….I mean younger kids are bringing in more kids to see the blues. So…I mean…that's great… it's going to make it survive even when I'm gone. But I love that man. There's always time for change and as long as the younger guys show respect to the older guys….it's all good you know. You don't come up and say you were the one that started this or created this but you give back to the guys that were before you and that's what I try to do with 'Make These Blues Survive' and every time I play.
Murf: There seems to be a lot more respect in the blues genre that in most of the other genres.
RBB: Yeah…It's a community, everybody's about the music…it's not an ego trip you know. The blues community is real down to earth….people more so.
Murf: Cause they are playing in the small clubs?
RBB: Yeah….it's more intimate…..you can go shake their hand, you can go talk to them, that has something to do with it also.
Murf: Yeah…if you go to a stadium with 20,000 people, your definitely not going to be meeting the band and shaking their hand.
RBB: It's hard, but I'm going to tell you as a musician, it's great to play in front of ….more people, but you also have to keep that intimacy and it's hard to do with a lot of people.
Murf: Well I have to tell you, see you in an intimate venue like this, this is great.
RBB: I've had a lot of fun here tonight, small crowd…but we finally touched them. That's all that matters…touching the crowd and if it's five people…..five or ten thousand…you have to touch them. That's what music is all about…..if your playing rock, your playing blues, your playing jazz, touching people is a feeling that you get and you try to express it through your songs.
Murf: It's nice to see someone come out and even with a small crowd you know, still play their heart out.
RBB: I try to do that man….you know….I think it's more of a challenge when it's a small crowd. To ahhhh…touch them cause you don't have all these people hollering and screaming. It's real quiet so you work with that. But when you got a whole bunch of people it's a little bit easier but then you get more nervous cause you want to do right. You know, it balances out.
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This interview is copyright © 2000 by Robert Murphy, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.