Chicago blues legend Ronnie Baker Brooks recently released his first studio album in ten years.
Times Have Changed was produced by Steve Jordan at Royal Studios in Memphis, whereby Ronnie Baker Brooks teamed up with with a who’s who of the music industry to record the album. This includes special guests Steve Cropper, Al Kapone and Angie Stone to name but a few.
National Rock Review recently caught up with Ronnie Baker Brooks to talk about his latest offering, working with Steve Jordan and his plans for 2017.
NRR: Thanks for taking the time to speak to us here at National Rock Review. You recently released your new album Times Have Changed, could you tell us a little bit about it and the inspiration behind it?
Ronnie: It started with meeting Steve Jordan years ago at the first inaugural for President Obama. I handed him one of my CDs and told him I would love to work with him. We ended up working again together on the Howlin For Hubert tribute for Hubert Sumlin, he was the musical director for that. Then we ended up working together again for the Obama’s second inaugural and that’s when it came about to do a record together.
NRR: Like you just mentioned, the record was produced by Steve Jordan. I was just wondering what was it like working with Steve and what does he bring to the table?
Ronnie: Well first of all – I call him the walking encyclopaedia, he knows everything about the history of music. He’s talented, he can play, he knows about equipment and gear. He knows who recorded what and what they had for breakfast that morning, he’s just very thorough. He’s just a talented dude man. So he brings all of that to the table. A huge encyclopaedia of knowledge of the music.
His body of work – you know I must admit I was a bit intimidated because of that at first. Then when we got to the studio in Memphis, the first thing he did was pull me to the side and said hey man, I know you are used to doing a lot of things on your previous things as far as you know arrangements and telling everybody what to play, producing/co-producing, whatever. He said look at all of the talent in this room, we’ve got your back and that just relaxed me. I felt more comfortable and more confident then.
NRR: Speaking of the talent on the album, you’ve got the who’s who of the music industry in there. You’ve got Steve Cropper, Archie Turner, Angie Stone, to name but a few. What was it like working with those guys and did you have those particular tracks which they played on the album in mind when you approached them to be involved with the project?
Ronnie: Yeah, well the track with Angie Stone that was thought of as well. All of them really were thought of as well.
The one that kind of came as a spur of the moment thing was the one with my dad “Twine Time”. I knew that I wanted my dad on the record, but I didn’t know which track we were going to do it on, and we ended up doing “Twine Time”. It was like wow, I knew my dad knew Alvin Cash, the guy that originally put it out. Dad might have been in the studio when they were cutting it here in Chicago. So that was kind of spur of the moment.
The other special guests were kind of calculated. We were in Nashville with Steve Cropper and Felix Cavaliere, so that was kind of natural as they were already there. Then with Lee Roy Parnell. The only thing that we did was to fly in Big Head Todd Mohr.
Of course being in Memphis, we had Bobby Bland. He was already there and so we just called him and asked if he would come down and sit in on a track. So it was all kind of planned out, yes.
NRR: I believe the title song of the album “Times Have Changed” it’s been with you for a long time. I was just wondering do you feel that the message within the song is still pertinent today?
Ronnie: Very, I think because things are always changing, you know with the huge change with computers and the internet, the way we listen to music, the way we record music now, the changes that we are having in America with the new President, all of these things, it was perfect timing.
I loved that song years ago, due to the fact of the changes in technology, the changes in my neighbourhood, the changes in how we treat one another and Steve heard it. I originally recorded it for one of my other records acoustically, just me by myself with a guitar, and Steve heard it and he was like wow, let’s do this one, I love the way you sing on it. I didn’t know he was going to put a band with it and get Al Kapone to do a rap on it, and then add some strings on it. So it just turned into a whole other thing for me.
NRR: Speaking of Al Kapone there, and going back through some of your earlier albums, including this one, you’ve brought together blues and hip-hop and sort of fused it together, which is quite refreshing, you don’t hear that very much. On this album, you’ve done it again with the title track. I was just wondering what motivated you to go in that direction with the hip-hop/blues fusion?
Ronnie: Well I kind of grew up in that era Adam, I caught the beginning of hip hop in the early 80’s and the late 70’s, you know the explosion of it if you want to call it that. I grew up in that era and a lot of my friends were listening to that. I was probably the only one that was listening to Muddy Waters though (laughing).
Everybody else was into the hip-hop/R’n’B you know Rick James, Prince, Michael Jackson all of that stuff and then hip-hop came in with The Sugarhill Gang and LL Cool J, Run DMC and I was digging all of it. I’m a product of that generation, but I had my roots deep in the blues because my father, he played all of that music at home and not only that but soul music, country, R’n’B and gospel – I heard it all.
My thought was I can relate to some of this stuff on the hip-hop side. I love the blues, I’ve just got to find a unique way to build a bridge where I can keep it authentic enough, where the blues audience would appreciate it and then cool enough to where the younger generation appreciate that as well and bring them home to the blues.
NRR: As well as the original material that you’ve got on this album, you’ve also got a few covers like “Show Me” by Joe Tex and “Old Love” is on there too, to name but a few. I was just wondering what made you choose those particular songs to record on the album?
Ronnie: Steve – you know this is the first record I’ve done with a cover song on. My previous records I did all originals. When we first hooked up, we had a phone conference with my manager, and he was like I want to do some cover songs on this record, and if you ever had a chance to record a cover song, which would it be? The first song I did say was “Old Love” because I was playing that song in my set for many years. During the early part of my career when I first heard the record I fell in love with it and I did say that if I ever recorded a cover song that would definitely be one.
The second song he was like, I want to record some other songs, but they don’t necessarily have to be the blues, what would it be or which song would you like? I thought about Curtis Mayfield “Give Me Your Love”, as I love that record – the “Superfly” album is one of my favourite records. I just love the orchestration of that song, not thinking that we were going to do a similar orchestration because I was just thinking a duet with Angie Stone. My manager came up with the idea of getting in touch with Angie Stone. So that was the second song.
Steve knew I loved Joe Tex, I grew up on Joe Tex, and my dad would play Joe Tex around the house all the time; him and James Brown. We were trying to find the right song from Joe Tex that would fit the concept we were going after. Then we came up with those two with “Show Me” and “Give The Baby â€¦”.
The “Twine Time” thing that happened in the spur of the moment. We were down in Memphis at Royal Studios. The first day, Steve pulled me to the side and told me all that.
Angie Stone flew in and the first track we did was “Give Me Your Love”. After we finished that, he said I want to do an instrumental, if you ever thought of an instrumental what would it be Ronnie? Well the first thing I thought about was Freddie King or Big Mouth Brown or I had written some original instrumentals on my previous records, and I was thinking about it.
He said no, let’s do something broader and it just hit him like a lightbulb man. He said “Twine Time” and I said what? (laughing). He said let’s do “Twine Time”. That song was key to the whole session for me because I was always trying to connect, and when I’m working with someone I’m always trying to connect musically in some kind of way. I definitely knew I wanted to work with Steve Jordan, and I love his work, but I also wanted to feel a connection where I know that I’m not just riding on him because I’m contributing and he’s feeling what I’m contributing.
We started the groove and Michael, the rhythm guitar player, was tuning up. I started the groove with Willie Weeks and Steve and Charles Hodges and we were just grooving in and Steve’s like yeah Michael keep that groove, we like that. Michael said no that’s not me, and Steve said Ronnie is that you? I said yeah man. He got up off his drums and came in the booth with me and just looked and growled, almost like he was going to grab me, he said that’s what I’m talking about, that’s the shit let’s do that.
Man, my confidence went sky-rocketed after that. That’s what I always wanted to do was connect, and feel you know that I’m contributing to this project, of course, it’s me, but I wanted to connect with all of the musicians musically, and that song just elevated the whole session for me. So that’s how we came up with the cover songs (laughing).
NRR: You’ve also been doing some shows as well in support of the album. I know you were recently on the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise, you’ve been doing shows in and around the Mid-West. How have the dates been going so far?
Ronnie: They are going great, the music is going over well to the audience, they are really digging it man. I’m getting a good response from all the songs that we are playing. It’s been really nice.
NRR: Do you have any plans to come over here to Europe with the tour at all?
Ronnie: I would love to come over there man. I haven’t been over in England since …the first time I went to Europe, was in England and Scotland in ’87, which was 30 years ago. I was over there with my dad, and we came back with my dad, probably in the 90s. I don’t think I ever played England with my own group, I played all over Europe, but I haven’t played England yet so I’m really looking forward to coming there with my own outfit, with this record and yeah, I hope the people dig it.
NRR: We will look forward to that. Obviously, you’ve been playing the guitar since you were really young, I think from the age of 6, and you were gigging again from a young age and playing with your dad. I was just wondering have you always known that being a musician was your chosen path?
Ronnie: To be honest with you Adam, I knew it was something, but I didn’t know I was going to be doing it for a living or for a career until I hit 19 years old. I took a break from it.
At an early age, I started at 6, my first time on stage I was 9 at a place called Pepperdine here out in Chicago with my Dad. I did a local TV commercial here with my dad and my brother Wayne Baker Brooks and I kind of thought I was a superstar, to be honest (laughing).
A lot of my friends, as I said earlier were not into the blues, if they were playing music they were playing Rick James, Funkadelic, George Clinton, Parliament all that kind of stuff, they weren’t playing any blues. So I got a little discouraged, so I quit to play basketball because all of my friends were into sports and I did that from like 12 until I graduated high school. I was gonna go to college on a scholarship, not a full scholarship but a semi-scholarship to play basketball, and I pay towards the full scholarship.
My dad said I will pay if you want to do this, but if you want to come on the road with me and try it out and see what you want to do. I said let me go on the road with you and that was my college because when I got on the road with dad there was no turning back.
I knew right then, when Albert Collins came by to sit in with my father here in Chicago at a place called Kingston Mines, and they got to jamming on stage, it was like the scene in the Blues Brothers movie when they walk into the church and they saw James Brown up there preaching and Dan Ackroyd and Jim Belushi said “I’ve seen the light”, and seriously it was like moment. I got goosebumps all over my body and at the moment I said if the good lord allowed me I’m going to do this for the rest of my life and that’s when I made up my mind to do it as a career.
NRR: In terms of your own musical taste and your own record collection, what’s the one album you couldn’t live without?
Ronnie: Wow (laughing). The one I couldn’t live without, that’s a tough one man because I have so many that touch me in different ways and have inspired me. I love my dad’s “Bayou Lightning” record on Alligator – that was the beginning of me learning how to write songs, or my dad teaching me and my brother to write songs because we would just jam with dad and we would come up with ideas and a lot of those ideas ended up on that record, some of those ideas ended up on that record. So that’s very key to me. Then outside of my father, I love Freddie King’s “Burglar” album and John Lee Hooker’s “The Healer”.
NRR: What else do you have in store for the rest of this year?
Ronnie: Well we are touring, I’m always writing and I just want to see where this record takes us. It’s been so long since I put out a record, I just wanted to make sure it got the proper attention. I’m honoured to be a part of the Mascot family and I want to see where this record takes us and that’s the plan to get out all over the world and let them know about the Brooks family and the Ronnie Baker Brooks band.
NRR: That’s really great and it was so nice to speak with you and I really hope you come over and we get to chat properly and see you guys play. Like I said I love the album and keep up the good work and we will speak again soon.
Ronnie: Thank you so much, Adam.
Times Have Changed – the new album from Ronnie Baker Brooks is out now via Mascot Label Group/Provogue.