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Interview with Ronnie Baker Brooks-exceptional talent with a unique perspective

Eddy The Chief Clearwater and Ronnie Baker Brooks
Eddy The Chief Clearwater and Ronnie Baker Brooks
Photo Credit Harvey Tillis courtesy of Chicago Blues Guide

Ronnie Baker Brooks, is a well respected and exceptionally talented Chicago Blues guitarist, singer, songwriter and producer, who has enjoyed a unique perspective having been raised in the shadows of musical legends, including his father GRAMMY Award nominated Chicago Blues legend Lonnie Brooks and dear friend GRAMMY Award nominated Chicago Blues legend Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater. He has benefitted from success on his own terms, as well as within his family. His brother Wayne Baker Brooks is also an accomplished musician. Brooks will be on hand to help Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater celebrate his 79th birthday in style at the 3rd Annual Blues Birthday Bash at SPACE Evanston on Friday, January 10th, 2014. Brooks and Clearwater share a close friendship, forged and solidified through a seemingly unbreakable and unshakeable creative bond, which is filled with mutual respect and admiration.

I recently had the honor and privilege of chatting with Ronnie Baker Brooks, via telephone, leading up to his 'special guest appearance' at Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater's 3rd Annual Blues Birthday Bash and live recording at SPACE Evanston on Friday, January 10th, 2014.

William Kelly Milionis: I truly appreciate this interview opportunity. What an honor and privilege it is to chat with you.
Ronnie Baker Brooks: Thanks for calling man.

Kelly: You are a member of an exceptionally gifted and talented musical family; an historically significant musical family. You are a highly accomplished blues artist yourself, as is your brother Wayne Baker Brooks. Growing up, when did you realize your father, legendary blues artist Lonnie Brooks, had that very special creative spark?
Ronnie: The first time that I knew something was different, I was about eleven or twelve years old and he took us to the Chicago Blues festival. That was the first time that I got to see dad play to a large crowd. I'd seen him perform in a club. The first time I was on stage was on my ninth birthday and we were in a small club on the south side of Chicago and it was cool. I knew it was cool. But, watching him play at the festival was a bigger impact, because there was a lot more people that I saw who were responding to dad. That's when I knew something was different.
Kelly: That truly has to be a special feeling?
Ronnie: Yeah, I was very proud. Then, a lot of my friends were into other styles of music, so I kept a lot of it to myself. And, Eddy ["The Chief" Clearwater] was one of those guys that would come by the house when I was a young kid. I knew that Eddy was a legend. It was great to see him come by. I remember that as a kid too. I knew that wasn't normal, as I got older. At first, it was like, you would see Koko Taylor or Hubert Sumlin come by or we would go by their house or whatever; it was just a normal thing. But, as I got older I realized that this was different.

Kelly: Looking back, you have an irreplaceable window on history simply because you've lived it. Significant, nothing ordinary, and so refreshing to hear you speak about it. Having felt that spark from your dad, when did you realize that Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater had the same spark? And, when did you begin sitting in with him and playing with him?
Ronnie: Well, I have always been a fan of Eddy Clearwater. Like I said, since he would come by the house. The first time, I can't remember the first time jammin' with him because we did so many in the house with dad back in the day. I would go on the north side of Chicago and watch Eddy play, you know one of the north side clubs. Eventually, when he said that I was playing with dad, he said ok I guess he's qualified enough to come up here and jam with me. So I would go jam. He got this club here in Chicago called Reservation Blues. He said, I got this club for people like you. So you come down here and play. I would go down there and we would jam. Every time I played down there, he would come and sit in with me. If he was playing and I was there, I would sit in with him. And, it grew, and grew, and grew, and he heard that I was doing my own records and writing my own records. He said, man I'm putting a record together and I would like for you to help me with one or two songs. I was honored! I was floored! Of course Eddy, whatever you need me to do. So, I would go over to his house. I brought all my gear over; my recording gear. One song led to two songs, two songs led to three, and so on and so on. It was one of the best moments of my life. To be honest, when you're writing, I love that part, and playing live as well but the writing when you're becoming creative with another person you love bouncing off ideas it's just a great positive energy. And, I loved it. It reminded me so much of when I was writing with my dad and being around the house with dad. For Eddy to allow that to happen, it was an honor. I ended up spending the night, got up the next morning and started all over again with Eddy. We listened to music, we bounced off of each other's ideas and that record [West Side Strut] was just a great, great moment in my career for me. And, I had the pleasure to produce that album.

Kelly: What role will you have with the live recording taking place at SPACE Evanston this Friday night for Eddy's 3rd Annual Blues Birthday Bash? Are you a producer on his live album?
Ronnie: Not really. I've been giving him ideas in rehearsals. This is Eddy's baby and I'm just visiting. He just came and played at my dad's 80th Birthday Bash here in Chicago. I told him there at the party, it's like hey man, I know your birthday's coming and I'll be there. He called me the next day and said, since you're going to be there you ought to play with me, you know I'm recording? I said I didn't know but whatever you want, I'm there. So we've been rehearsing and trying to get it together.

Kelly: Are you involved in any of the tracks?
Ronnie: Well yes, we're going to do some of the songs we did on the West Side Strut album. I wrote or co-wrote several of the songs on that album.

Kelly: What are the fans to expect with the performance on Friday?
Ronnie: Eddy "The Chief" it's his house, I'm just visiting, and I'm trying to support and make Eddy look good and sound good. They know what to expect already. You know it's gonna be a good time and a good just come on down and have some fun!

Kelly: This will be Eddy's first new release since West Side Strut in 2008. However, you and Eddy did collaborate on a track, A Time For Peace in 2010.
Ronnie: Sitting in Eddy's living room, he started playing this song idea and I was like wow Eddy that's beautiful, that's beautiful. That's how we came up with the idea. I just put the arrangement on it and helped out a little bit. Basically, I wanted to create the same vibe that we had in that living room with Eddy. It was a message song and I wanted people to feel that soul coming from Eddy.

Kelly: You can definitely feel it. Everything you, your father, your brother, and Eddy have accomplished and are continuing to provide musically is noteworthy. Whether you are producing, writing or performing you have each had a lengthy career with a resultant stature received from hard work and achievements. And, it's always great to be recognized by your peers. Congratulations to your father Lonnie for his GRAMMY Award nomination. And to Eddy's GRAMMY Award nomination as well. You each have a drive for excellence. You have a sincere love of your profession and a complete dedication to and passion for your craft.
Ronnie: Oh man, I'm honored dude. You know, we did this tune on my record The Torch, called The Torch Of The Blues. Eddy sang along with the late Willie Kent, Jimmy Johnson and my dad. I grew up with all these cats. Back in the day, I remember when all of them were on the road. All of them were on the road consistently. And, everybody was on the road a lot more back then. We were representing Chicago. I took pride in that, being a part of that. When they did that song with me, it just made me feel like I was accepted into the Chicago Blues Men's fraternity. To be able to rub shoulders with these guys is an honor beyond belief I really appreciated it.

Kelly: You, in your own way, have been moving forward and are a musical torch bearer. Are there any young, up-and-coming musicians who might be able to carry that torch as well...carry on the blues legacy?
Ronnie: Yeah, I've got a few. But, I've been heartbroken on the loss of one of my good friends, actually a couple of weeks ago, Eric Guitar Davis...
Kelly: Yes, I'm sorry to hear that...
Ronnie: Yes, he was killed about two or three weeks ago here in Chicago. He was an up-and-coming Chicago blues artist. I worked with him as well. I produced a couple tracks on his record. He had a promising future but was gunned down here in Chicago and it broke my heart. So, it's kind of difficult to think about that part of it. But, like you said, you got to go on and keep pressing. There is one young kid here called Jamiah. Jamiah on Fire is the name of his band. He's probably just fifteen or sixteen years old and an amazing young talent...amazing! Great attitude, talented, not only just a guitarist, he can play several instruments. That's what I look forward to, to see him develop.

Kelly: What's on the horizon for Ronnie Baker Brooks?
Ronnie: I'm trying to finish my new CD. I'm excited about that. To get a new CD out and to just continue to develop that and developing the new band and the sound. Just trying to get better. Every year I try to do something to force myself or to push myself to do something to better myself. And, you can get a little complacent in this business. This is an old man's success business; being a blues man. They don't believe you until you are old; you know seventy years old, then they believe you. [laughing] Which is kind of sad because we do have some young people making it like Gary Carter, Jr. and Shemekia Copeland
Kelly: When you say it's an old man's game, it speaks volumes for you because you had the talent at such a young age
Ronnie: Yes, and that's what I meant by getting into that Blues Men's fraternity. When I was younger, many were saying you're too young to play the blues. What do you know about the blues. They weren't giving out contracts to young kids back then, like Jonny Lang. You know, all these other youngsters, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, they're not youngsters anymore but back then they were. When I was coming up, they weren't doing that because I had to prove myself. And, I was standing up against other guys who were still trying to prove themselves. That has changed. That has changed for the better. People are a little bit more open now about color, age, sex, all that. I think that's a good move for the music because it's got to grow. You can't sing about picking cotton or you can't sing about what Muddy Waters sings about. We do sing those songs with the same spirit, but we can't talk about it because we haven't lived it. We can only talk about what we've lived and use that same spirit that Muddy and Wilson and all them had. It's all good though. Like I said, I'm trying to push myself to be a better songwriter, be a better singer, a better player, a better band leader, a better rhythm player, whatever it is to keep pushing it forward.

Kelly: We're all blessed with the positive musical attitude and the remarkable musical legacy you, your father Lonnie, you brother Wayne, and Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater have passed along. Thank you so very much. Wish you all the best with Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater's 3rd Annual Blues Birthday Bash and live recording and your new album as well.
Ronnie: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

Friday, January 10th, 2014
SPACE Evanston and 5th Annual Chicago Bluegrass and Blues Fest present

with special guests Ronnie Baker Brooks & Johnny Iguana
with opening set by Will Jacobs Band

SPACE Evanston
1245 Chicago Avenue
Evanston, IL 60202
Phone: 847-492-8860

Doors: 7:00pm Show: 8:00pm
Tickets: SPACE Evanston

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