April 1, 2017 – Lonnie Brooks, Chicago bluesman who achieved fame in the late 70s, was born Lee Baker Jr. on December 18, 1933 in Dubuisson, St. Landry Parish, Louisiana. He learned to play blues from his banjo-picking grandfather but did not think about a career in music until after he moved to Port Arthur, Texas, in the early 1950s. There he heard live performances by Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Long John Hunter, Johnny Copeland and others and began to think about making money from music.
He focused on the guitar comparatively late in life, when he was already in his 20s. But he learned fast and a little while later, Award winning Zydeco king Clifton Chenier heard Brooks strumming his guitar on his front porch in Port Arthur and offered him a job in his touring band.
As his profile grew, he embarked on a solo career, and signed with a label in Lake Charles, Lousisiana where he recorded a handful of regional hits, some of them were later recorded by the Fabulous Thunderbirds. The title “Family Rules”, which he recorded under the name Guitar Junior, scored a Gulf Coast hit in 1957. When soul singer Sam Cooke invited the emerging guitar phenom to join him in Chicago, he packed up and moved there in 1960, but had to give up his stage name Guitar Jr., as that moniker was already taken by Luther Johnson. So he anointed himself Lonnie Brooks and discovered a sound that changed the course of his music and life: Chicago blues.
“I would see guys like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker for $1, and I always wondered how they got all that soul into their playing,” Brooks told the Tribune in 1992.
“Then one night, I saw Magic Sam in a little blues club on the South Side. He went on stage right after he’d gotten into a big fight with his girlfriend, and it was like he was taking it out on his guitar. I seen how it came from the heart, so I went home to the basement, and got into that mood that Magic Sam had been in, and the blues came to me.”
With regular work in the many clubs of the big city, he started recording for several labels, while also supporting other artists live and in the studio, among them Jimmy Reed on Jimmy Reed at Carnegie Hall.
He recorded his first solo album “Broke an’ Hungry” in 1969 (a last tribute to his stage name Guitar Junior). The record did little and Lonnie Brooks became his future.
Brooks’ journey to the blues produced a singular, dynamic sound that made him an increasingly important figure on the Chicago scene in the 1970s. The scorching tracks he recorded for Chicago-based Alligator Records’ “Living Chicago Blues” series led to a long run of albums for the label under his own name, including classics such as “Bayou Lightning” (1979), “Hot Shot” (1983) and “Lone Star Shootout” (1999).
Over time, the explosive energy of Brooks’ live performances, searing intensity of his guitar playing and rough-and-ready character of his vocals made him an international attraction and a living symbol of Chicago blues. Appearances in the Dan Aykroyd film “Blues Brothers 2000” and alongside Paul Shaffer’s band on “The Late Show with David Letterman” only heightened his profile.
Brooks explained his larger-than-life performance manner in a 1997 Tribune interview.
“It’s almost like (being) a comedian,” he said. “The one that can make the people laugh the most, is the one that they like the most. So that’s why I do it, to get the people interested.”
In 1974, Brooks participated in a multi-artist tour of Europe and recorded an album, Sweet Home Chicago, for the French label Black & Blue. When he returned to Chicago, he began playing regularly at Pepper’s Hideout on the South Side. There he attracted the attention of Bruce Iglauer, the head of the fledgling Alligator Records, who had previously seen him at the Avenue Lounge on the city’s West Side.
In 1978, Iglauer included four of Brooks’s songs (including three originals) in the anthology series Living Chicago Blues, released by Alligator. Brooks signed a contract with the label, which released his album Bayou Lightning the following year.
After that time, Brooks recorded exclusively for Alligator, releasing seven albums in his own name and contributing to shared recordings and compilation appearances. His style, sometimes described as “voodoo blues”, included elements of Chicago blues, Louisiana blues, swamp pop and rhythm and blues. Other labels issued pre-1978 recordings by Brooks and compilations of his singles.
Following the release of Bayou Lightning, Brooks began touring in the U.S. and also returned to Europe. The album won the Grand Prix du Disque Award from the 1980 Montreux Jazz Festival. While in Montreux, Brooks befriended the country music star Roy Clark, who arranged for him to appear on the country music television program Hee Haw.
A 1982 trip to Germany resulted in an hour-long live performance on German television. His next album, Hot Shot, was released in 1983. His album Wound Up Tight, released in 1986, featured his most famous fan, Johnny Winter, on guitar. Rolling Stone took notice of the album, running a six-page feature on Brooks. In 1987, BBC Radio broadcast an hour-long live performance by him. By this time, his teenage son Ronnie Baker Brooks was touring with the band. He made his recording debut on his father’s album Live from Chicago—Bayou Lightning Strikes.
He brought sons Ronnie Baker Brooks and Wayne Baker Brooks, both guitarists, into his music from the time they were children, and he regarded them as the future of his music. “I’m looking for my kids to take it even further,” he said. To that his son Ronnie said: “My father taught me everything I know, but not everything he knew. He was my best friend, my mentor and my father. He taught me and brother Wayne. “My dad loved his family, and he loved his music. He did a hell of a job at maintaining both.”
Brooks’s 1991 release, Satisfaction Guaranteed, received much coverage in the press, including features and articles in the Washington Post, the Village Voice, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Guitar World, Living Blues, Blues Revue, and other publications.
Brooks went on a national concert tour with B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, Junior Wells and Eric Johnson in the summer of 1993. Eric Clapton, performing in Chicago as part of his “From the Cradle” tour, honored Brooks by inviting the bluesman on stage for an impromptu jam at the blues club Buddy Guy’s Legends.
In 1996, Brooks released Roadhouse Rules. The album was produced in Memphis by Jim Gaines, who also produced recordings by Luther Allison, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Santana. Ronnie Baker Brooks also played on this album. With fellow Gulf Coast blues veterans Long John Hunter and Phillip Walker (both of whom he had known and played with in the 1950s in Port Arthur), Brooks released Lone Star Shootout in 1999.
Besides his live and recorded performances, Brooks appeared in the films Blues Brothers 2000 and The Express and in two UK television commercials for Heineken beer. His song ‘Eyeballin’ was used in the film Forever LuLu. “Got Lucky Last Night“, featuring Johnny Winter, was used in the film Masters of Menace. Brooks also co-authored the book Blues for Dummies, with Wayne Baker Brooks and the music historian, guitarist, and songwriter Cub Koda.
When Lonnie Brooks appeared with the Chicago Jazz Ensemble in 2005, he still dazzled the audience, but not with fast finger work alone. He picked up his guitar and began playing it with his teeth and tongue, proving more skilled with his mouth than many guitarists are with their hands.
More important, the music that thundered from Brooks’ instrument and voice on this occasion — and uncounted others — shook the room. His sound was so huge and delivery so ferocious as to make everything alongside him seem just a little smaller.
“He had his own sound, his own style,” said Chicago blues singer Shemekia Copeland, daughter of blues guitar legend Johnny Copeland, who grew up in Texas and knew Brooks and his family from when they lived there. “Something about that Texas thing made him different than the other blues artists here in Chicago,” added Copeland. “They grew up listening to country music. There was just a different type of a swagger to their music.”
In 2010 The Blues Hal of Fame honored him with induction.
Brooks died on April 1, 2017 at age 83 in Chicago from cardiac arrest.
“Lonnie Brooks was a Chicago blues legend with a towering talent and soulful style that won him legions of fans across the country and around the world,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement. “His celebrated career inspired generations of music lovers, garnered numerous awards and brought him from the clubs of Chicago’s west side to the concert halls of Europe and beyond.“