This originally appeared in ‘BackYard Blues’ the newsletter of the Long Island Blues Society, written by Suzanne Foschino. You can find them here www.liblues.org., and Blues411 feels it is worth sharing with it’s readers.
SF: What’s next for you, Ronnie? are we going to see a new recording from you anytime soon?
RBB: Well, I’m writing, I’m always writing.
SF: When you’re writing, what kinds of things do you keep in mind to keep your music current and keep your recordings timely?
RBB: What I always like to do with all of my records is view each new recording as a platform to grow from, to push myself to the next level with. I’m trying to always be a better thinker, songwriter, guitar player, a better rhythm player, a better band mate…keeping that platform of growth has always been an important part of my philosophy in making a record AND I always try to push the envelope a little bit, but still keeping it true to the blues.
SF: You say band bate, not band leader…but you’re the band leader.
RBB: When I’m recording, I’m a band mate…we all work together.
SF: And you write all of your music?
RBB: Yes, I wrote every song on every CD I’ve ever recorded.
SF: Why? Why not cover some of the blues greats?
RBB: Mainly because my dad always preached to me and my brother Wayne that we should always try to write our own material because you can always play someone else’s stuff, that music is always going to be here, it’s already part of history. He said, ‘you could always play Albert King, you could always play Albert Collins, you could always play my stuff, but when you write your own material, it’s YOURS…you can deliver it better, and it gives the generation behind you something to grab onto and hopefully they’ll be playing your music like you’ll always be playing ours’.
SF: So, that’s the key…I was going to ask you next what you think the key is to keeping it going to the next generation, keeping it new yet real, and prevent it from getting tired and stale, and that makes a lot of sense…you move it to the next generation by creating your own new music instead of constantly covering the old stuff…
RBB: when I do record, I try to keep the authentic feel of people like my dad, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, and update it to feel more like me, and more like the generation that I’m in, musically and how it sounds.
SF: You mean like bringing a rapper like Al Cappone in to the studio with you to make a cameo appearance on your last CD “The Torch“? I know he makes an appearance in the song “If It Don’t Make Dollars It Don’t Make Sense”.
RBB: Yes, exactly
SF: How did you end up hooking up with a guy like Al Cappone?
RBB: I was down at my engineer, Nico’s studio, he recorded a lot of hip hop in memphis, and he was always cool with those cats down there, and I used a rapper down there on my CD “Take Me Witcha”.
SF: Which song from that CD has a rapper on it?
RBB: “The Flavor of the Week”
SF: Oh yea, now I remember…so, Nico, your engineer works with Al Cappone?
RBB: Yes, he worked with him on the soundtrack for the movie “Hustle and Flo”, they wrote a song together on that soundtrack called “Keep Hustlin”. So, when we were looking for a rapper he said, I can call Al Cappone and he can get it done real quick if he’s available.
SF: Did you write the lyrics that he raps?
RBB: No, he wrote that. I gave him the idea of the song, and what it’s talking about, and where we wanted the music to go…and I told him I wanted to keep it clean, I didn’t want to be any cussin on it or anything like that. He listened to the track about 2 or three times, and he wrote the rap. Then he went into the studio and came out about 10 minutes later with the final rap.
SF: Wow. 10 minutes?
RBB: Yup, 10 minutes. That’s what I mean, I do things like that, like bringing in a rapper, to bridge the gap from the generation behind me to the generation that’s ahead of me, while trying to keep it authentic
SF: Right. It’s like when I hear bands like Bon Jovi and Aerosmith talking about how they have two generations in their audience now…the ones who went to their shows back when they were in high school, and now they’re bringing their kids. Realistically, in blues, people like you and Bernard Allison, you’re the kids…and you’re in your 40s (both laugh) so, how do you try to reach the 20 year olds out there who might be looking for some blues?
RBB: Well, I try to keep an ear open to what they’re doing, ya know keep an ear to the ground on what they’re listening to. my step daughter, she’s 19 years old and I pay attention to what she’s listening to and my daughter’s 7 years old and I’m even listening to the kinds of music that she likes.
SF: Ok, I want to talk some about your family. Your dad Lonnie Brooks, a member of the Blues Music Hall of Fame…you could probably talk for hours about how he’s influenced you musically…but, how has he influenced you as a human being? as a man? How has he taught you to remain grounded while you’re doing what you’re doing?
RBB: it’s easy to remain grounded when Lonnie Brooks is your dad. As a kid, I never thought that I could do what he was doing and he would always say “yes you can, yes you can”. and, ya know, when I was a kid, playing basketball, no matter how tired he would be, maybe he had a gig the night before, he would always find a way to make it to my games to be there to support me. He’s a great family man.
SF: And I heard that he fired you when he heard your solo material for the first time?
RBB: Well, no, he kind of fired me…I was in his band, and as I would say he kicked me out of the nest and he told me if it didn’t work, I could always come back. And that’s what gave me the confidence to go out and try to go solo. I’ve got ultimate, ultimate love and respect for my dad and my whole family. I mean, I could call him today and he would still give me the right advice. He taught me how to be a musician, a professional musician, ya know like, how to be on time and take care of your band, the fans, and how to take care of the hand that takes care of you, most of all, he taught me how to be a man. He would always say ‘you’re a man first…you treat everyone the same way. like if you’re a band mate, a drummer, guitarist, anything, you treat them as a man first, or as a lady first, musician second. He was always preaching that to me.
SF: So, you’ve told me in the past that when you were young, you wanted to be a basketball player.
RBB: That’s right
SF: What changed your mind?
RBB: Bernard Allison!
SF: Bernard changed your mind?
RBB: Ya know, when I was playing as a kid, I was playing with adults. Most of the musicians who played around my house growing up, with dad and with me, they were all grown ups and I didn’t have anyone my age playing music and I used to get teased by my friends about listening to blues and playing blues music. But, I just loved it, there was something about it I loved. Most of my friends were into sports. Kids my age were into basketball, baseball, football…
SF: When you say “my age” how old do you mean?
RBB: I’d say from the time I was about 9 till about 16 years old. I took a break over those years, after I was about 14, I picked up the guitar again, but I took a long break. and then, I saw Bernard Allison playing with Luther Allison at the Chicago blues festival here in Chicago. I guess I was about 16 or 17 years old. My dad saw Bernard and came over to me and said, “see, if you had kept playing, you could have been up there with me now just the way he’s up there with his dad.” and it finally hit me when I saw Bernard…he was only 2 years older than me, and he was playing blues with his dad, and he was into it like I was. I finally had met someone else I could really relate to. So, when he came off stage I went over and talked to him and introduced myself to him. And he told me he heard about me too and said to me “you should get up there and you should be doing it, too.”
SF: And that’s the first time you two had ever met?
RBB: That’s the first time. And Bernard says he has pictures somewhere from that day.He said to me “I heard from your dad that you want to play basketball.” then he said to me “we got enough Michael Jordans, we need more BB Kings.”
SF: And you’ve been friends ever since?
RBB: Yeah, we’ve been buddies ever since.
SF: You owe him for that! Hell, I feel like I owe him for that! (both laugh) I want to send him a basket of flowers to personally thank him for changing your career path. (both laugh). So, what are the plans for the next CD?
RBB: I’m writing now…I’m always writing. I never know when I’ll hit the studio…I don’t go into the studio until I know I’ve got all the songs together and then I move forward. I’m definitely going to do all original material again.
SF: How long does it generally take you to record a CD? I remember talking to Bernard about this and he said he likes to do it in as short a time as possible, spend most of the time with preproduction and recording as close to “live” as possible. In fact, he told me that his father used to say, “If there’s a mistake in the recording, chances are, that mistake was supposed to be there” which always means to me, don’t over produce the blues. Do you think overproduction is a problem in blues?
RBB: Everyone has their own feelings on this. I try to capture the real feeling that comes from the blues, people should be able to feel your spirit through the music, that “real” feeling that only comes from the blues. You don’t want to over produce that, it’s gotta have some kind of rawness to it to capture it. But, everybody has their different philosophies on recording. I like to try to write a bunch of songs, try to cut as many as I can and then I try to choose the songs that fit the big picture for the CD.
SF: So, do you sit down and try to write? or do you just write something that hits you out of the blue and then try to piece it all together later?
RBB: it comes to me in different ways…like the other day I wrote a song and the music and the lyrics came to me at one time. But sometimes just a riff will come to me, a guitar riff or a keyboard riff and I’ll record that and I’ll come back to it and try to put a melody to it later, or the lyric will come and I’ll put the music to it later. You never know where it’s gonna come from. On my last record, “The Torch”, I wrote and recorded 25 songs for that and released it with 17.
SF: Where’s the rest?
RBB: I still got ’em in the can.
SF: Well, get ’em out of the can!!! (both laugh) What was the deciding factor that put those 17 songs on the CD and left the others off?
RBB: I tried to put them together so the it flowed well, not just showed the individual songs. The music has to all fit together in some way, the music has to flow. Maybe I’ll release the rest of the songs on the next CD.
SF: Why not just release the two CDs?
RBB: I know. We’ll see…right now I’m working with my dad, he’s got a new CD coming out and I worked on that, I’m proud of it and I think the people are really gonna dig it. And, my brother Wayne’s got a new CD coming out, too.
SF: Speaking of your brother Wayne, I think he exemplifies the idea of bringing new styles of music into the blues. I mean, he’s a blues based performer, but he’s got so many other genres and styles mixed into what he does, he’s a perfect example of someone else who’s really pushing the envelope yet still trying to keep it pure.
RBB: Well my dad preached to both of us to be ourselves and try to be different from everybody else.
SF: What do you say to someone who has a strict idea of “what the blues is” and/or someone who might say something to you like “that’s not blues”?
RBB: It’s just an opinion. I used to try to so hard to try to please everybody. I like to see people having a good time, and if I didn’t please everyone, it bothered me. And Little Milton saw that and he told me once “you can’t please everybody, Ronnie. But what you CAN do is start with yourself, do what you feel good about and what you feel comfortable with and the people will get a vibe from that.” He said, “everybody is not going to like you. If you see somebody get up and walk out in the middle of your show, just block it out, let ’em go…and concentrate on the ones that stayed.”
SF: That’s a good philosophy…work for the ones that stayed. So, what makes a good crowd to you? do you work better with people who are up and dancing or someone who might be standing there watching, maybe studying what you’re doing?…because the people sitting there watching could be enjoying you just as much, if not more than the people up and dancing…what do you feed off of more? how can you read the crowd?
RBB: I feel the vibes, but if they’re dancing, it’s a whole lot easier to pick up on that vibe. (laughs) But then again they could be drunk and not caring about the music and just dancing. You can feel it when the people are sincere.
SF: I think you know that I’m one of those people that sits and stares, I don’t dance. (laughs) I’m hoping you get my vibe, haha!
RBB: BUT, you know, if you do something that really gets to the audience, they’re gonna do something to let you know they like it, whether it be a smile or a dance or tap their feet, clap their hands, whatever, you can feel it sometimes even if you can’t see it. I want to be able to take the blues to another level. I think we need another Stevie Ray Vaughan or another Robert Cray to cross into mainstream.
SF: Well, why not you? You’re equally talented to those folks, why can’t it you be that is the next person to cross that barrier???
RBB: it really takes a machine. You gotta have a machine behind you. It’s gonna be done, someone’s gonna break through again, because the blues can’t be kept down forever. The blues is an education process…it takes time but the blues is always gonna be here.
SF: But us blues fans are getting tired of having to work so hard to find it. It seems every time I turn on a blues radio program, I’m hearing people who have passed on, and I don’t hear enough of people like you who are out there now, working, trying to make a living out of it NOW. I can understand having nothing but love and respect for the music of the past, but you can’t be married to it if you want to evolve and live on. I think that blues purists might be stopping a little of that evolution process because they are so incredibly respectful of the past, that they almost don’t want to let it go. so, where they think they’re doing some good, maybe it’s doing some harm.
RBB: We just need some soldiers like me and you who keep on going, and keep on pushing until we finally break through in some way, but it will.
SF: I guess if you require soldiers to keep it going, at the very least it means you end up with quality in the music because that means you’re only doing it because you love it and it means so much to you. so you work hard to make that music, and us fans work hard to seek it out so we can hear that music. I guess as long as we have that mutual love of this music, someone will always be making it and someone will always be listening to it…we just need to keep trying our best to spread the word and to increase the numbers of us blues soldiers out there.
RBB: That’s right. The blues will always be around. It’s not going anywhere.
Look for Ronnie on tour this year, and can check his schedule at www.ronniebakerbrooks.com. His recorded music is available for purchase on his website.
Until next time,
Love, Peace & Chicken Grease
photos courtesy of Suzanne Foschino & Leslie K. Joseph.