Blues from the Top profiles: Ronnie Baker Brooks was born to the blues
Special to the Sky-Hi News
Ronnie Baker Brooks, otherwise known as RBB, has the blues in his blood and a family lineage to prove it.
It was his Dad, Chicago blues legend Lonnie Brooks, who taught him to play the guitar when he was just 6 years old. The young musician progressed quickly, making his debut onstage at the tender age of 9.
“It was a club called Pepper’s Hideout on the South Side of Chicago,” Brooks said. “At the time I was very scared and nervous. I had a mood ring on; do you remember those? It was turning all kinds of colors. My mom was there, and she told me to play at home just like you do with dad. That calmed me down.”
When he began to play, people in the audience couldn’t quite believe what they heard.
“People didn’t think it was me. My dad had to take his hands off the guitar, and people started throwing money at me,” Brooks said, laughing. “I felt like a superstar.”
After that performance, RBB was hooked and spent hours practicing each day. Soon, he grabbed the attention of yet another audience: his classmates.
“I did a television commercial for a local station here,” Brooks said. “It played every weekend during Saturday cartoons. When I would go to school, people would tell me they watched me on TV. No one my age was playing music or playing blues. All of my friends were playing sports.”
After a few years, young Brooks grew tired of the blues scene and decided he wanted to join them.
“At age 12, I quit,” he said. “I started playing basketball, and Dad told me I couldn’t do both. All of the people I was playing music with were too old. I wanted to play with kids my age.”
That decision broke Lonnie Brooks’ heart, but he never let on. Instead, he went to every game, sitting in the crowd and cheering for his son.
“My Dad supported me,” said Brooks. “He’d get home from the club at 3 a.m., come to my games, take me to lunch, take a nap, then go back the next night and do it again.”
RBB’s love of sports upstaged his passion for music until high school. Then one night, he attended a friend’s performance and inspiration struck once again.
“I saw my friend Bernard Allison playing with his Dad,” Brooks said. “And something sparked. It was someone who looked like me, somebody I could relate to.”
RBB dropped the basketball and picked up the guitar once again, focusing all of his energy on the music. When he graduated, the elder Brooks gave his son a choice: college or a year on the road. For RBB, music was the only option.
“He wanted to see how bad I wanted it,” Brooks said. “He wouldn’t let me play but one song a night. I had to do all of the work; tuning guitars, setting up the stage and selling LPs. I had to work harder than anyone. No free ride. I learned every aspect of touring and playing from him. Musically, I had the chance to help write songs and create set lists.”
RBB paused for a moment, reflecting. “It was another level of education. It was my college.”
Eventually, Brooks joined the band full time and began performing and touring with his family.
“Playing with my dad and brother always felt like home,” he said. “I got to see the world, and it changed my perspective. I saw how he did it every night. At first, it was intimidating, but I learned so much and got to meet so many people.”
Brooks took that musical education and began to write his own songs. In 1997, he cut his first record in Memphis, Tenn. The album was well received.
“I decided wanted to do both,” he said. “The best of both worlds. Record and play with the family.”
He gave the album to his dad, hoping for some feedback. As always, Lonnie Brooks offered his opinion and support. But this time, his response wasn’t what RBB expected.
“He said, ‘It’s time for you to go. If you want people to look at you as a solo artist, you have to leave. You can’t play with me. If it don’t work, you can always come back.’”
The idea of separation was tough for Brooks, but it also gave him the confidence to take that leap.
Since then, RBB has recorded three solo albums, writing and performing his own material. He has produced some of his father’s music as well.
Later this month, Brooks will bring his style of blues, along with a seven-piece band, to Grand County.
“We had a three-piece band the last time I played Blues from the Top,” he said. “I love Colorado, it’s one of my Dad’s most popular states. This year, it’s a whole different outfit. The vibe is different and I’m excited to be there.”
Ronnie Baker Brooks Big Band will perform on Sunday, June 28. For more information, visit http://www.grandblues.org.
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