Featured Blues Interview – Wayne Baker Brooks
“Dad would always tell me and Ronnie, ‘Whenever you write, make sure it’s not cover songs or (even) like a cover song. Do your own. Don’t do what others are doing.’”
Wayne Baker Brooks is the youngest male in a family of nine children born to the late Lonnie Brooks who passed away on April 1st. Dad burst on the scene in the late 1950s as Guitar Junior and brought the secret sauce of edgy blues and rock mastered in Louisiana and Texas to Chicago where he recorded a series of albums for Alligator, 1979’s Bayou Lightning being son Wayne’s favorite. Wayne’s brother Ronnie Baker Brooks (interviewed earlier this year in Blues Blast) has recently released a well-received blues CD Times Have Changed, featuring a wide variety of influence including hip hop. This first family of Chicago blues has played both together and later as separate headliners since 1976 when Wayne was six years old and brother Ronnie was nine.
“There was a time period when I was like six years old where my dad would have Ronnie and I help him write songs. He would have me on boxes and pots and pans. He would show Ronnie the bass line of what he wanted for the song, and he would sit there and come up with these grooves, man. Every now and then Ronnie and I would chime in with words like, ‘Say this. Daddy!’ And he’d say, ‘Yeah, that works,’ or ‘Nah, nah.’
“He was coming up with songs and demos that he would present to whatever record label. Most of the stuff we helped him with ended up on Alligator Records like Bayou Lightning. There’s probably four of five songs on that album that Ronnie and I helped him with for demos that he presented to Alligator. He would literally write the songs right there, man. When I look back in retrospect, man, that was my first songwriting class.
“Any time I was writing music, I always think of my dad saying, ‘Make a difference, do something different.’ And I always look at how those who are different will have a hard time breaking into the mainstream because people are used to what they like. They like what they like, and they’re used to it, (but) history shows that those who are different that do break through are the ones who last the longest and will stick around and be a household name and will be around forever in people’s hearts.
“So, my dad throughout his whole career did have a team of people always working behind him, him and his music. He had hits earlier on his career, but he never really hit that mainstream later in his career. And I think it’s because of his differentiality, him being different from others and that’s where the edge comes from. He was doing things Muddy wasn’t doing, Howlin’ Wolf wasn’t doing, Buddy, Junior. He was bringing in his own flavor of all of his experiences and where he lived.”
Wayne honed his style performing more than 150 shows a year with his dad and his brother. In 1998 he co-authored the book Blues for Dummies along with his dad, rocker Cub Coda, and The Blues Brothers’ Dan Akroyd.
“(Ronnie and I) are an extension of my dad’s legacy. My dad’s grandfather is the roots of the tree, and my dad is the tree, and we’re the branches. My dad set us up to take it further than what he did, and he took it further than what (his grandfather) did and he set it up for us to do that. He made it fun for us to want to do it. So, he did it in the most fun way. We had no clue what he was trying to do with his plan until we got older. His original plan was to have me on drums and Ronnie on bass and go out as a trio.
“Ronnie and I are the only two that plays blues music. Well, I take that back. I have an older sister that is a working minister that only sang gospel music and probably wouldn’t think about doing blues music. She thinks it’s the devil’s music. I think there’s a lot of stuff that’s being talked about in blues that she would never talk about like alcohol and champagne and reefer and the devil’s my friend and that stuff. She won’t embrace nothing like that. You know?
“My dad would let me use some of his guitars, but he’s never given me – no, he gave me an acoustic guitar. Ronnie has never given me a guitar. No, it’s more like real family stuff when we were young. Hand me down socks and hand me down jeans, and hand me down shirts. When I say hand me down, I mean really hand me down. Nothing in music I would say or dealing in music ’cause instruments and stuff was always around. It’s like it was ours anyway.
“So, we would pick it up, and sometimes Dad would say put it down. He would limit and make you want it and stuff. Completely opposite to Joe Jackson and his sons in the Jackson Five. Dad made it fun, and he made you want to do it enough to where he could limit it and use it to his advantage like, ‘When you get done with your school work, then you come over here and help me out with this,’ or ‘go clean your room and then you come in here.’ He made it so much fun as far as music. So, I wouldn’t say musically speaking, no hand me downs.”
An important ingredient in Lonnie’s lessons for Ronnie and Wayne was an all-inclusive eclecticism that folded in regional influences that go back at least four generations. Chicago was just the latest stop. Wayne remembers being open minded about genres of music when he was a deejay on the school intercom. “The last 15 minutes of school, they’d let me play records, and every time it would always be a Lonnie Brooks song, and then I would play Sugar Hill Gang ’cause that was like new, fresh, so I was giving them blues and hip hop at that young age.”
Part of that eclecticism was driven by the practical needs of being a fulltime musician. “There was a time period when they would call my dad the human jukebox because he had to play what was on the jukebox in order to appeal to his fans, but it was something that was unfulfilling for him. He always was into writing his own stuff, and the different flavors that he brought from Louisiana and moving to Texas and breaking that Texas rock back in the days and his Louisiana swamp feel and matching the Chicago blues sound and being way different was way before his time.
“And I think when you’re different, it’s harder for you to break into mainstream. So even with the song “Two-Headed Man” if you listen to the original recording on the Living Blues Vol. 2 on Alligator Records, that track was being performed like 15 minutes before they actually started recording because my dad was trying to get the band to find the groove of what he was thinking, and no one in Chicago knew what the heck he was trying to do. So, he just played it and had them play along with him until he felt like, ‘Ok, this is it. This is what I was envisioning now recording.’
“So, him being different was not instantly accepted even with the recording of the music, but he always would tell me and Ronnie, ‘Whenever you write, make sure it’s not cover songs or like a cover song, or do your own. Do what you’ve done or what you were thinking. Don’t do what others are doing and just because you see people cheering for that person ’cause they’re playing that certain song that everyone knows, they’re really not cheering or admiring your work. They’re admiring your work for some someone else’s work.”
“Real” blues is in the ear of the listener. Wayne whose worked with artists as disparate as Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Jonny Lang and George Thorogood remembers a lesson learned from Junior Wells about singing and playing “Messin’ with The Kid.” “(Junior said) ‘How’d you learn how to play that?’ I said, ‘Man, listening to the record how Buddy played it.’ He said, ‘No, you’re doing that shit wrong.’ He played it the exact same way, and he said, ‘Now, you play it.’ And I played it, and then he said, ‘Now, you got it.’ It was the same thing.”
The Brooks family and the Luther Allison family have been tight since son Bernard Allison, Ronnie, and Wayne were all kids. “I remember as far as eight or nine years old, going over to (father) Luther’s house and Bernard and Ronnie attempting to start a band and Luther at various Chicago shows with Dad. Then, I didn’t see Luther for a while. I guess that’s when he moved to Europe, but I kept in contact with Bernard. I’d see Bernard every now and then when I was like 16, 17 years old, and then once I got out on the road at 18 I started seeing them off especially in Canada, France. We’d go over there, and I would stay there for a week and stay at his house for a week. Bernard and Luther are like family. They’re like extended family. Like he’s like a kid brother, Bernard.
When Luther passed away in 1997, Bernard covered his father’s gigs in Europe instead of going to his dad’s funeral. Bernard talked to me about this painful decision in 2007. “There was a few family members that didn’t understand, but at the same time I was doing what my dad wanted me to do and what I had previously talked to my parents at a young age about. So, when my dad was sick and in the hospital, I talked to him on the phone. He said, ‘I’m in the hospital. I need to be here and let the doctors do what they need to do. All ask you to do is could you finish these gigs for me?’ He wasn’t into cancelling shows, but in the back of my mind I knew I couldn’t be there. It would affect me too much. And he wanted me to continue what I’m doing. So, that’s what I did. He’s with me every day. I sing a song for him every night, and he’s smiling down.”
Although Lonnie Brooks had been off the road for years when he passed away April 1st, Wayne understands the angst his friend Bernard went through in covering his gigs instead of going to his father’s funeral. “I would say that probably was Luther all the way wanting him to continue the legacy in a most positive way you possibly can because you don’t want people waiting on the guy. So, to Luther it was probably a negative for his son not to do the tour. But that legacy shouldn’t have to wait because of a death. Luther knew that Bernard loved him with all his heart. They were more like brothers, too.”
Wayne thinks about Bernard and what he did all the time. “Absolutely, man! You know Bernard reached out. That’s the thing. My dad set this platform up not only for him to be successful but to set it up for us. I don’t want people to mistake our roles, Ronnie, myself, including Bernard, including Shemekia (Copeland, daughter of Johnny Clyde Copeland). We’re not like these coat tail riders.
“Every father wishes their son would follow in their footsteps and continue the legacy, you know, keep it going, and sometimes kids don’t like what their father do, and that’s one thing I can say. When I was growing up in the heat of what my dad was doing, I was always proud and never ashamed of what he did and embrace it. So, it makes me feel honored and proud to continue his legacy. He made it so much fun to where we want to do this for him. It’s not like we have to do this for him. We want to do this for him.”
Lonnie Brooks’ legacy may have yet another chapter. Lonnie never released an album after 1998, but he recorded one in 2010 that includes a rendition of one of Wayne’s songs “Ain’t That Lovin’ You” that Wayne wrote in five minutes as if channeled by God. When Lonnie heard it in 2010, he wanted to record it even though he’d avoided recording for 12 years.
“We’d been asking my dad since 1997 to do another album, and he just flat out refused to record, and no matter how many times you asked him he’d get angry and we’d just back off.
“So, years go by, and years go by, and then finally in 2010 I came back to him and said, ‘Daddy, this is what you’ve been waiting on. This guy (Tom Hambridge) is the perfect producer for you. I enjoy him tremendously, and I definitely don’t have the talent you have, and the two of you will come up with some really good stuff, man, and the ambiance, the way he approached things is so positive and he’s musically inclined. He wants to get things out of you.’
“And he (Dad) heard me out, and he went on and got his music together and went down to Nashville and we recorded it, the songs he wanted to record. This album is so killer. My dad told me, he said, ‘Wayne, when I hear my version of “Ain’t That Lovin’ You” all I think about is the way my mom used to think about Jesus. She used to talk about Jesus Christ, and this reminds me about the way she would talk about him.’
“I got chills and I said, ‘Daddy, there’s no wonder you’re saying that ’cause I wrote it in five minutes, and it felt like it went right through me. That’s a gift from God.’ And he was like, ‘Whoa! Man, I’ll tell ya what. This is the greatest album I’ve ever made in my life.’
“For me it was like reaching Mount Everest just to hear my dad do one of my songs and make it sound so freaking good, man. It’s like wow. The whole song is like God sent because when I wrote the song, I wrote it in five minutes and it felt like God was sending me this message through me, through my fingers while I was writing the lyrics to the song. That wasn’t me. That was the man above giving me a gift. And when my dad heard it, I said, ‘Come back. Let’s listen to those tracks,’ and he heard that song, he was like, ‘Oow, man, I like that. Who wrote that?’ I was like, ‘Jeff wrote the music and I wrote the lyrics.’ He was like, ‘Man, I will tear that song up just like that. I’ll kill this song!’
So, is it going to be released?
“Well, the world’s got to hear it, man. Got to hear it. That goes along with what you were asking if I’m gonna come out with something. Yes, I am, but also my dream was to have all three of us come out with something at the same time.
“I’ve been secluded ever since my dad passed away, and trying to keep a low profile, but a lot of these things we’re talking about is actually therapeutic for me so I really appreciate you.”
Visit Wayne’s website at: www.waynebakerbrooks.com
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.