Don’t call it a comeback. Although it’s been an entire decade since Ronnie Baker Brooks has released an album, his presence in the blues industry during that time has been ubiquitous. “I produced Eddy Clearwater’s album, West Side Strut, I did a compilation with Johnny Castro, I co-produced my dad’s last album and I’ve been touring,” explained Ronnie about his busy schedule over the last ten years. Add raising a 14-year-old daughter to all that and you get the impression that fans are incredibly lucky that he squeezed in recording his dynamic new album, Times Have Changed (Provogue).
A Memphis brewed stew of blues riffs, soul crooning and social commentary, the 11-track offering is well worth the wait. With a lineup that includes appearances by the late Bobby “Blue” Bland, Angie Stone, “Big Head” Todd Mohr, Stax guitarist Steve Cropper and the legendary Lonnie Brooks, this CD delivers thrilling listening.
“I’m happy to take time to record my own music,” Ronnie explained. “I’ve recorded all of my albums in Memphis because it’s a place that I can get away and work.” Times Have Changed was recorded at the fabled Royal Studios, where Al Green, Syl Johnson and Bobby “Blue” Bland recorded and also tracked at Nashville’s Blackbird Studio, With Memphis music royalty (Cropper, Tennie, Charles and Leroy Hodges of the Hi rhythm section, Archie Turner) backing him, Ronnie really didn’t have a choice except to create a significant collection of blues-based music. Of course, Ronnie Baker Brooks knows a thing or two about music royalty.
“It’s an honor to be his (Lonnie Brooks) son, he taught me everything I know but not everything he knows,” he said. “Very early on, my dad coached us (Ronnie and his brother Wayne) on writing our own material and crafting our own identity. I felt a strong obligation to be a blues musician. No one at the time, of my generation was doing it and I felt like, ‘I gotta do this.’ My mindset changed when I did The Torch (Watchdog) (in 2006) My dad, Eddy Clearwater, Jimmy Johnson and Willie Kent all played on my album. I was trying to pay them and they said’ no, just keep doing what you’re doing.’ I felt like I was accepted into the blues men fraternity and now I feel it’s an honor, not an obligation.”
That honor that he feels for his craft is all over Times Have Changed. He’s done his dad proud and written 5 of the 11 tracks and he’s honed his perspective and sound into a cohesive soundscape that builds from the past and looks to the future. He’ll be 50-years-old on January 23 and this album presents the reflections of a seasoned bluesman who is confident in his path.
Kicking off with the Joe Tex classic “Show Me,” Ronnie supplies tasty riffs with convincing soul shouts accompanied by a pumping rhythm section that dares you to stay still. That dance vibe gives way to the blues funk of ‘Doing Too Much” with Big Head Todd trading licks and vocals with Ronnie. The most crucial blues album instrumental this side of Buddy Guy appears with “Twine Time,” an R&B hit that gets a re-working with Ronnie and Lonnie tearing through riffs.
“When Steve (producer Steve Jordan) suggested ‘Twine Time,” I said, what? ‘My dad was probably in the studio somewhere when they recorded that.’ Although Ronnie was in Memphis and Lonnie was in Chicago, the elder Brooks recorded the vocals and entire song at Todd’s house in Chicago. The result is a seamless track that sizzles with energy. The song sounds like a non-stop party and Ronnie revealed that there were several guests in the studio, including Drake’s dad. “He’s a friend of Willie Mitchell’s family and he was just hanging out.”
Standouts include a memorable interpretation of Curtis Mayfield’s “Give Me Your Love,” with Angie Stone offering sultry guest vocals, the title track which serves up social commentary on the changing societal landscape with Memphis MC Al Kapone closing it out with a rap and a searing rendition “Old Love” by Bobby “Blue Bland.
“I always performed that song live and I wanted to include it on the CD,” said Ronnie of recording the song in 2013 before Bland’s passing. ‘We got a chance to record Bobby and we talked for an hour. I wanted to get insight on how he sings. He got inspiration from Aretha’s dad [preacher C.L. Franklin] and the diction of Nat King Cole, class was in session. I used to sneak my transistor to listen to WVON at night and I’d hear Bobby sing. Watching him record, I felt like I was in a dream.”
Committed to being a bridge to the blues from his father’s generation to the others that followed, there was a time when he was younger that Ronnie actually quit the blues. “ None of my friends were playing this music. They were playing sports. I was 10-years-old and I wanted to play basketball. It broke my dad’s heart but he said OK. He’d come home from a gig, get up and take me to my game, play Saturday night and then get up Sunday to take me to my game. Then I saw Luther Allison at the Chicago Blues Fest. His son Bernard was up there and I had never seen anybody my age playing the blues. He came over to me and he said, ’I heard you play basketball. I play ball too but we have enough Michael Jordan’s, we need more B.B. Kings.”‘
Ronnie returned to the blues and he believes that’s also the direction of the industry in general. “The blues will never die but it’s in transition. People are getting back to the blues now because they are looking for the truth. With the economy dipping and the new president, people are searching for the truth. The blues tells the truth and it’s a healer.”
Appearing 2/3 at SPACE, Evanston
– Rosalind Cummings Yeates