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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Lonnie Brooks--An appreciation

Lonnie Brooks performs the blues standard "Sweet Home Chicago"

"Lonnie Brooks didn’t play the blues to make you feel sad," said Chicago's Alligator Records blues label founder Bruce Iglauer of the Grammy-nominated Chicago blues guitarist, who died April 1 at 83.

"His blues made you forget your blues. With his roaring vocals and soaring guitar, he could reach inside you, soothe your soul, make you throw off your troubles and get up on your feet. Even now, when I think of him, his memory makes me grin."

Brooks stood out from other blues guitarists/vocalists in combining Chicago blues, rock 'n' roll, Memphis soul, Louisiana French music and country music into what his peers called "voodoo blues." Born Lee Baker, Jr., in Dubuisson, La.—in the heart of the French-speaking Cajun/Creole Acadiana triangle--he started out in Port Arthur, Tex. in the mid-1950s (he was inducted into the Port Arthur Historical Society Hall of Fame in 2001, and the Blues Hall of Fame in 2010). He also played with Lousiaiana zydeco king Clifton Chenier, and went by the name Guitar Junior when he first recorded and scored Texas and Louisiana regional hits.

He changed his name to Lonnie Brooks when he moved to Chicago in 1959 at the behest of Sam Cooke, and also found a new musical home in Chicago blues: Inspired by the soulful playing of Muddy Waters and especially Magic Sam, he toured and recorded in Jimmy Reed's band, performed extensively in the Chicago area, and after releasing a few singles in the '60s, released an album—again using the name Guitar Junior—in1969.

But it was with his albums as Lonnie Brooks with Alligator, including Bayou Lightning (1979), which won the Grand Prix du Disque Award from the 1980 Montreux Jazz Festival, that he made his mark. On June 12, 2012 Mayor Rahm Emanuel declared Lonnie Brooks Day in Chicago.

"Lonnie Brooks was a Chicago blues legend with a towering talent and soulful style that won him legions of fans across the country and around the world," Emanuel said in a statement. "His celebrated career inspired generations of music lovers, garnered numerous awards and brought him from the clubs of Chicago's west side to the concert halls of Europe and beyond."

In The Chicago Tribune, Chicago blues singer Shemekia Copeland, who grew up in Texas and knew Brooks when he lived there, said, "Something about that Texas thing made him different than the other blues artists here in Chicago. They grew up listening to country music. There was just a different type of a swagger to their music."

Whatever it was, Brooks made a point of passing it on to his sons Ronnie Baker Brooks and Wayne Baker Brooks, both of whom played guitar in their father's band and lead their own.

"The first thing is that my dad was a family man," said Ronnie. "He loved his family and loved his music, and did a wonderful job with both."

Echoing Copeland, Ronnie said, "His music was unique. He was a versatile musician who started in a Louisiana swamp-rock style, and played a little R&B and wanted to bring something new to the blues in Chicago. And he always preached to me and my brother Wayne to write our own material to establish our own identity, and that's what he did: He loved to be different in songwriting, and brought a different flavor to the blues."

Indeed, Brooks' blues was "like gumbo," added Ronnie. "He put funk in it, rock in it, zydeco—all these flavors. But he was really into the funk thing where he moved and danced. But there was a rock side as well, because he played that first. It all turned out to be Lonnie Brooks—and I'm proud to have grown up under the man and the musician."

Corky Siegel, the legendary blues harmonica/piano player and co-founder of Chicago's celebrated Siegel-Schwall Band, was especially moved by Brooks' passing.

"Did you ever cherish a moment, a memory? I got to hang with Lonnie and talk to him, just me and him, for a long time, up at an Alligator Records party," Siegel recalled. "I was in the company of gentleness and goodness and distinction. I had just released my first Chamber Blues album on Alligator and we talked about doing something together with Chamber Blues."

Siegel, whose latest album Different Voices with his blues/classical group Corky Siegel's Chamber Blues has just been released, continued: "Did you ever regret a moment? I never thought he was really serious about it and so I never followed up, and then one day he said to me, 'Corky, what ever happened to that idea we talked about with your string quartet?' Ouch! By then I had already arranged material for [Chicago blues drummer and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee] Sam Lay and [Siegel-Schwall bassist] Rollo Radford and had to follow up with that.

"So now I ask, 'Did you ever feel like something just slipped away?' Sadly, much more than 'something' has just slipped away. But the Brooks family is nothing but love and sweetness, and I know they will do okay."

Ronnie Baker Brooks recalled a conversation he had with his father some years ago.

"I'd lost my bus driver, and had to decide whether to sit around in my hotel room and grieve or go out and play," he said. "The first thing my dad said was, 'Is everybody there? You're there—so you might as well go on and play, [otherwise] all you'll do is sit in your room and bounce off the walls. So go on stage and take it out on your guitar'--and that's my plan now: Move forward and continue adding to his and our Brooks family legacy—and hopefully the blues legacy as well--and let people know where I got it from and who taught me."



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