Singer, songwriter, guitarist
After toiling for two decades as a support musician, session man, and performer of moderately successful regional hits in the 1950s and 1960s, Lonnie Brooks rose to prominence as an elder statesman of rock-and-roll infused blues music in the late 1970s. Brooks's popularity primarily arose due to his continuous touring, good-natured stage presence, and distinctive fiery guitar playing. His album releases, while most often categorized as blues, have transcended the limits of the genre by incorporating such diverse musical styles as Cajun, zydeco, country, funk, and rock. Along with this hodgepodge of musical influences, Brooks also tilts his musical hat to such blues stalwarts as Texas guitarist T-Bone Walker and Chicago guitarist Jimmy Reed. The net result is a musical amalgam that critics somewhat reductively call swamp rock and blues.
Brooks was born Lee Baker Jr., in rural Louisiana. His parents would leave the young boy with his grandparents for extended periods, and during that time Brooks developed a passion for music. His grandfather would rise early every morning to play banjo by the wood-stove for two hours, before leaving for work. "I wanted to be a musician since I was four or five years old," Brooks told Contemporary Musicians. "Exactly at four o'clock every morning, I would get up with [my grandfather]. I was hooked on music." Brooks's grandmother died when Brooks was seven or eight, and his grandfather moved in with Brooks's family. "He came to live with us, and I got the chance to hear music every day." Brooks told Contemporary Musicians that he would get in trouble for attempting to play his grandfather's banjo without permission. "He would leave for work and put his banjo way up high. … I'd climb up on a chair to get at it." When Brooks turned ten, his grandfather recognized how much the young man wanted to learn the guitar, and taught him some chords, which gave Brooks an early start on his musical education.
Despite his love for music, it wasn't until he was 22 that Brooks purchased his first guitar, a Fender Stratocaster. "I took pictures of it and took them into my [construction] job," he told Contemporary Musicians. "[I] told the guys there, 'Look, I just bought a guitar.' They asked me why I bought such an expensive guitar if I don't know how to play it. I said, 'Because I'm going to learn how to play it.' They didn't believe me. In eighteen months, I had a record out." Persistent practice enabled Brooks to hone his skills to the point where he could play nearly any song after hearing it only once. His early influences included such musical royalty as Memphis legend B.B. King, Texans T-Bone Walker and Long John Hunter, New Orleans pianist Fats Domino, country songwriter and performer Hank Williams, and rock-and-roll's once and future king, Elvis Presley.
The first real test for Brooks's burgeoning guitar ability was serendipitous. He was practicing guitar on a second-story porch when a Cadillac pulled up, and the occupant listened to the impromptu performance. Brooks's audience was none other than Clifton Chenier, a famed accordion player and the proclaimed King of Zydeco, a raucous style of music that blends Cajun influences with a variety of white and black American musical styles. When Brooks saw the Cadillac, he thought to himself, "I wish I had one of those." He added, "[Chenier] sat and listened for about five minutes, got out of his car, walked up the steps and introduced himself. He asked me who I played with, and I told him I didn't think I was good enough. He said, 'What I hear is good. Why don't you come over to my house? I play zydeco and rock and roll. I would like you to come play with me because I need a guitar player.'"
Brooks played with Chenier as a member of the Red Hot Louisiana Band for eight months in the mid-1950s. When Chenier signed a contract with Specialty Records, which necessitated a move to California, Brooks stayed in Louisiana to perform with Lonesome Sundown. When Sundown likewise scored a recording contract, Brooks found himself leading a band, and, perhaps more disconcerting, a band without a singer. "I couldn't find a singer, so I started to sing. I didn't know the words to most of the songs, so I just made up my own. That's how I found out I could write," he said. "In two weeks, I had to learn more than twenty songs." Brooks's anxiety was allayed, however, when his first songwriting effort came to him in a dream. "I used to box when I was eighteen," he later recalled. "I dreamed I was in a boxing ring and I'm playing a guitar with boxing gloves on and singing, 'Family, family, family rules.' I woke up when I finished that song and it just stuck in my mind. I walked around the house, and I picked up my guitar, and I started playing it. My wife said, 'Shut off that noise, I got to go to work in the morning,' so I went into the kitchen and I couldn't find any paper. I had bought a new shirt and I took the cardboard [from the shirt's packaging] and wrote the words down. … I tried to go back to sleep, but it was time to go to work. I was so excited, I took the weekend off and got the band together to rehearse the song."
An initial attempt to record the song "Family Rules" in Houston, however, resulted in disappointment. The producer turned Brooks down because he thought the country-tinged song was "too white." Brooks believed the producer, "because this guy had [recorded] so many musicians. … I forgot about [the song], but I started getting gigs in white clubs playing country, blues, and rockabilly." At one such gig, a local disc jockey caught Brooks's incendiary performance, and invited Brooks to guest on his radio program the following day. Brooks was interviewed and performed several songs during the four-hour program. Near the end of the show, he was asked to perform one more song. The only song left in his repertoire was "Family Rules." Audience response to the performance was immediate, leading him to record the song for commercial release. He wrote the single's flipside, "I Got It Made in the Shade," in 30 minutes, and Brooks's career as a songwriter was off and running. Unfortunately for Brooks and other musicians like him, he failed to retain the publishing and copyright on much of his early compositions. "I did like every other stupid musician did when they're young and … don't know the business—you trust people that you're recording for," he recalled. "All you want to do is cut a record; you don't know the business end of nothing. You're [just] glad to get your name on a record."
For the Record …
Born Lee Baker, Jr., on December 18, 1933, in Dubuisson, LA; children: Ronnie Baker Brooks.
Performed and recorded with Clifton Chenier, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, and Lonesome Sundown, mid-1950s; worked as a construction site and oil rig employee, mid-1950s; recorded first solo song, "Family Rules," as Guitar Junior, 1957; moved to Chicago at behest of Sam Cooke, 1960; recorded and performed with Jimmy Reed, early 1960s; recorded Alligator Records debut, Bayou Lightning, 1979.
Addresses: Record company—Alligator Records, P.O. Box 62304, Chicago, IL 60660, phone: (800) 344-5609, website: http://www.alligator.com.
"Family Rules" became a regional hit single released under the moniker Guitar Junior for the Lake Charles, Louisiana, label Goldband Records. The song prompted his employer at an oil field to fire him from his $43-a-week job as a pipe fitter, in order to convince Brooks to accept an offer to play for $500 a night in Baton Rouge. Brooks followed up the release of "Family Rules" with another modest regional hit "The Crawl," which later became a centerpiece in live performances by the Austin, Texas, group The Fabulous Thunderbirds. A chance meeting with Sam Cooke in a taxicab in Georgia led the soul and gospel singer to invite Brooks to record and perform in Chicago. As Chicago already had another guitar slinger calling himself Guitar Junior, Brooks adopted his current stage name, while continuing to sporadically record and perform as Guitar Junior (most notably on the 1969 Capitol album Broke & Hungry). He opted not to use his birth name for personal reasons related to an acrimonious divorce in Louisiana. During the 1960s he toured and recorded with Jimmy Reed, and contributed guitar work to the recording of the guitarist's signature song, "Big Boss Man."
During the 1960s and early 1970s, Brooks recorded for such labels as Chess, Midas, USA, Mercury, and Chirrup, but failed to create much of a stir beyond his live performances. Frustrated and seeking a regular paycheck, Brooks took a job as a die caster in a Chicago factory. He performed at a summit of Chicago blues royalty in Amsterdam in 1975, and returned home to sporadic gigs in Chicago for relatively paltry sums. In the late 1970s, however, Brooks propelled his career into a second phase of success through his association with Bruce Iglauer's Chicago-based blues label Alligator Records. Brooks contributed four songs to the Alligator 1978 sampler Living Chicago Blues. In 1979 he released his Alligator debut, Bayou Lightning, which featured such swamp-rock informed songs as "Voodoo Daddy." A string of high-quality Alligator releases featuring Brooks's songwriting, singing, and guitar playing—as well as a grueling concert schedule often totaling more than 250 performances a year—solidified his reputation as a consummate showman and ambassador of a new hybrid of the blues and rock-and-roll. In the early 1990s Brooks added the guitar services of his son, Ronnie Baker Brooks, into his recorded work and live performances.
Singles (as Guitar Junior)
"Family Rules," Goldband, 1957.
"The Crawl," Goldband, 1957.
Albums (as Guitar Junior)
Broke & Hungry, Capitol, 1969.
Albums (as Lonnie Brooks)
Sweet Home Chicago, Evidence, 1975.
Let's Talk It Over, Delmark, 1977.
Bayou Lightning, Alligator, 1979.
Turn on the Night, Alligator, 1981.
Hot Shot, Alligator, 1983.
Live at Pepper's, Black Magic, 1985.
Wound up Tight, Alligator, 1986.
Live from Chicago, Alligator, 1988.
Satisfaction Guaranteed, Alligator, 1991.
Roadhouse Rules, Alligator, 1996.
(With Long John Hunter and Phillip Walker) Lone Star Shootout, Alligator, 1999.
"Biography," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (February 25, 2005).
"Lonnie Brooks," Alligator Website, http://www.alligator.com (February 25, 2005).
Additional information was obtained in a June 1988 interview with Lonnie Brooks.
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