By Jacob Katel
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By Nate "Igor" Smith
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That way, it would turn out, was as a sideman with blues singer Jimmy Reed, with whom Brooks would tour and record. He parlayed that gig into regular session work at Chess and many of the other studios fueling Chicago's bustling music scene. He also kept busy in the bars on the city's south and west sides with his own band and, in 1969, released his first full-length album, Broke an' Hungry, on Capitol Records. (The album came out under the name Guitar Junior, despite the fact that another Guitar Jr. already existed, having beaten him to Chicago. That led him to change his stage name to Lonnie Brooks.)
Buoyed by his first major-label release but still shy of major stardom, Brooks kept hammering away at the Chicago, the Midwest, and, eventually, the national club scenes. He expanded his fan base with a 1975 tour of Europe and an album titled Sweet Home Chicago recorded for the French Black & Blue label. Then in 1978 Brooks saw four of his songs included on the Grammy-nominated anthology Living Chicago Blues, issued by Chicago-based Alligator Records. He has been with Alligator ever since, releasing eight solo discs for the label and tearing it up on the 1993 compilation The Alligator Records 20th Anniversary Tour.
Today Brooks blends upbeat Chicago blues with funky R&B rhythms, a spicy pinch of melodic Cajun gumbo, and the occasional hint of a country steel guitar lick. The energetic musician is a powerful, throaty vocalist and, as blues elders go, is among the more capable guitarists. Roadhouse Rules (1996), his most recent release, features fourteen slithery and often humorous tracks powered by stinging guitar riffs and guest spots by the Memphis Horns and harmonica wizard Sugar Blue.
And by Brooks's own offspring. Ronnie Baker Brooks, Lonnie's 31-year-old son, has been touring and recording with Lonnie's band since a guitarist went AWOL more than ten years ago. Son Wayne, at 27 the newest guitarist in the family, also jumped into the spotlight a few years back. Together, the Baker Brooks brothers open dad's shows with their spirited blues rock. After his boys get the crowd warmed up, Lonnie joins Ronnie and the band on-stage for the headline set. (Three guitars would be a bit much so Wayne sits out, sometimes returning for an encore.)
As the dawn of a new millennium approaches -- and as many of the blues' most beloved practitioners pass into memory -- Brooks watches his legacy gain importance. He's more than satisfied with the future of the blues as he sees it, though, and he sees it in full color. Young white guys playing music that has its roots in the black work songs of pre-Civil War slave camps doesn't bother him in the least. "I don't look at color," he notes. "Would you say Stevie Ray Vaughan couldn't play? You wouldn't say that. That man could play. He had soul, he could sing and he could play the hell out of the guitar. He had more feelings. And a lot of these so-called cats call themselves black and say they can play the blues. He'd run rings around them."
That musical crossover -- fired by the late Vaughan and, more recently, younger players such as Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd -- has only served to bring blues fully into the American mainstream. According to Brooks, that makes it easier for a musician to make a living. "I know a lot of people don't want to hear that," he says, "but that's the way it is. And now the white kids are gettin' into it and they're making it bigger. It's gonna be something like rock and roll was when it first started. If it keeps on going like it's going, it's going to get just as big as anything else."
Lonnie Brooks performs at 9:00 p.m. on Saturday, March 21, as part of the Coral Gables Blues Festival, held in the 300 block of Alcazar Ave., Coral Gables; 446-1600. Admission is free.