Born to the Blues

Dr. Ivan Petrovich Pavlov could have easily predicted how the tune broadcast from an ice cream truck would affect most people. Let a few bars of that familiar melody resonate through a neighborhood, and everyone screams for ice cream. The brilliant Pavlov collected a Nobel Prize in 1904 for his work on the nature of the digestive system. Of course no one remembers him for that. Instead most of us know him as the Pavlov of "Pavlov's dogs" fame.

It would be interesting to get Pavlov's take on blues guitarist Lonnie Brooks. See, in Brooks's neighborhood, way back in the Thirties when he was just a boy in Dubuisson, Louisiana, the ice cream man didn't play a jingle-jangle melody through his truck's loudspeaker. No sireee. He played Muddy Waters. He played John Lee Hooker. And most of all he played Lightnin' Hopkins.

"That's how I got to love Lightnin' Hopkins so much," Brooks reminisces, speaking over the phone from his home in suburban Chicago. "We lived about a half a mile from the highway, and they had these big loudspeakers on the truck and you could hear this guy from about three miles away. It gave you a chance to get your money together and run to the road out there and get yourself some ice cream."

Despite that early brush with the blues, the genre wasn't Brooks's first musical passion. He had grown up with the sounds of the Deep South flooding his consciousness: Zydeco and country music were all around him. The blues were a wild new thing to young Lonnie Brooks -- or Lee Baker, Jr., as his mama had named him when he was born in 1933. How much that earthy musical style would affect his adult life neither he nor that old ice cream man could ever have guessed.

To erudite blues buffs -- especially those fortunate enough to frequent the Chicago-area bars where Brooks regularly performs -- he is known for his rambunctious live act. While his recorded output has slowed in recent years, his work is consistently entertaining and inspired. At age 65, with nearly 50 years as a professional musician behind him, Brooks is a respected link to American music's storied past -- and not just to the blues, but to zydeco, country, and R&B.

Brooks first learned to strum the strings of a musical instrument from his banjo-picking grandfather, and by the early Fifties, after a move to Port Arthur in southeast Texas, decided to pursue music as a profession. Pouring cement and working construction by day, he spent his nights jamming with accordion-playing Cajun legend Clifton Chenier. Very late nights.

"I used to be late for work in the morning 'cause he'd get to stayin' out and he didn't know when to come home," Brooks recalls of his apprenticeship with the zydeco squeeze-box king. "A lot of times I'd go straight to my job, and I'd be walkin' in there with my guitar, going to work. I'd been up all night."

Around the same time Brooks also tried his hand at country, his other musical love, scoring a regional hit with "Pick Me Up on Your Way Down." But Eisenhower-era America wasn't quite ready for a black man at the Grand Ol' Opry. "Back then they wasn't accepting me," he says, admitting he sometimes regrets not sticking with country music a little longer. "It's just like some people don't want to accept a white boy playing blues. You gonna have some assholes out here wherever you go, whatever you play. Somebody's gonna say, 'You can't do that because this ain't your music.'"

But Brooks, who had decided by that time to book himself under the moniker Guitar Junior, comfortably crossed musical boundaries. He gained notoriety throughout the South as a rising R&B star after recording a slew of singles for the Louisiana-based Goldband imprint. His appearance at a 1959 gig in Atlanta, a benefit concert featuring a host of future legends such as B.B. King and Ray Charles, led to a close friendship with R&B/pop icon Sam Cooke.

Initially Cooke -- a budding guitarist himself -- had asked Brooks to teach him some of the fancy licks he'd heard the guitar slinger playing. They ended up hanging out together for a few days and writing songs. Eventually Cooke suggested that Brooks relocate to Chicago, where blues and R&B labels like Chess Records were really stirring things up. Brooks jumped at the chance. He didn't score a record deal for some time -- the Northerners wouldn't acquire a taste for his Bayou blues for several years -- but once Brooks saw the bright lights of the big city, the Southern boy never went home again.

"I got turned down because I had the Louisiana sound, and that wasn't happenin'," he explains. "They wasn't listenin' to that here. But I just refused to leave Chicago after I got a taste of it. I hung around Chicago. I could go out to nightclubs seven nights a week -- and go to about ten of 'em -- and not go to the same club. So I said, 'There's got to be a way for me to make it here.'"

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.

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