Ronnie Baker Brooks
Nells Jazz & Blues, London.
Nell's Jazz and Blues
3 North End Crescent,
Nearest Tube - West Kensington Station (3mins)
Bus - 74, 190, 430, N74 & N97
Taxi - 30 yds
On the first day recording Times Have Changed - the eleven-track album from Chicago bluesman Ronnie Baker Brooks that brings a sound so big it could topple a Louisiana juke joint - industry-revered album producer and drummer Steve Jordan told Brooks to put his pedal board back in the van. For the first time in his professional life, Brooks, the son of Texas and Chicago blues legend Lonnie “Guitar Jr.” Brooks, would plug a Gibson into TKTK amp and rip it straight from there.
“Back to the basics. The pedals get in the way of your tone – your natural tone. Any distortion I had came straight out of the amp,” Brooks remembers from the Times sessions. “It was almost like going to college, or grad school. It was definitely an education.”
Brooks, 49, likes to treat each album he makes as a platform for him to grow, but the reality is that he’s been climbing the blues world’s latter all his life. He was born in Chicago, and started playing guitar around age six. At 19, he joined his father, who by then had influenced some of the most well-known bluesman of our history: Jimmy Reed, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Johnny Winter, and Junior Wells. For 12 years the two would tour together, putting Ronnie out front with Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Koko Taylor. In 1998, when he was 32, his father told him to go solo.
Baker already had a band by then, one he’d been touring on the side with since 1992. But by 1998 he’d started a label; that year he made his first album, Golddigger, 16 songs tracked out in two weeks. “My dad always said to keep writing, even if you don’t think the song sounds great or you can’t finish it,” says Baker. “Write. Continue to write. The more you write, the better you get.” Take Me Witcha came three years later; his second album on Watchdog Records. Brooks broke out as his own champion on 2006’s The Torch. The Boston Herald called it “ferocious and unrelenting … the year’s best blues album.”
In the ten years since The Torch, Brooks has started a family, toured North America and Europe, and taken feature spots on the records of other bluesmen. He produced Eddy Clearwater’s West Side Strut and contributed guitar work to albums from Elvin Bishop, the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Review, Billy Branch, and Big Head Todd.
Times Have Changed, Brooks’ first album in ten years, carries with it the weight of grown perspective and time spent perfecting old material. Brooks worked it with Steve Jordan, whose work runs from Keith Richard to Stevie Wonder, John Mayer and Eric Clapton. With that comes a lesson in rhythm and blues history. Brooks refers to the director as “a walking encyclopedia of music detail and equipment,” a professor through which Brooks could take that next developmental step. “Once we got the ball rolling, my confidence went higher and higher,” he says. “I’m a better musician for this experience.”
The experience Brooks is talking about is that which came together over the course of a few weeks at Royal Studios in Memphis, the home of Al Green, Syl Johnson, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and O.V. Wright, whose 1974 hit "Blind, Crippled, and Crazy" gets a facelift on Times Have Changed. Jordan and Brooks brought in a mint press of Memphis music royalty: Stax Records staple Steve Cropper (Booker T. & the M.G.'s, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave), Archie Turner (Al Green, Syl Johnson, O.V. Wright), jazz saxophonist Lannie McMillan, and R&B icon Angie Stone.
“We used the same mics that Al Green used on his record,” says Brooks. “Matter of fact, we were using much of the same band! It kind of took that vibe.” The first track recorded was a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly hit “Give Me Your Love.”