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 Richards to Stevie Wonder, John Mayer and Eric Clapton. “I decided to go to Memphis and Nashville for the particular musicians and studios I wanted to engage,” Jordan explained. “As it turns out, Ronnie had done a few of his previous recordings in Memphis, so he felt right at home.” Collaborating with Jordan represented 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 and Bobby “Blue” Bland. 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. For several tracks, Brooks also enlisted brothers Teenie (guitar), Charles (organ) and Leroy Hodges (bass) of the legendary Hi Rhythm Section, which served as the house band for hit soul albums by artists like Al Green and Ann Peebles. “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. The second, Twine Time, the instrumental jam from Alvin Cash.
“To be honest with you, when Steve said ‘Man, we need an instrumental,’ the first person I thought of was Freddie King. Steve wanted something more appealing to all people, not just guitar players. He said ‘What about Twine Time?’’ I said, ‘Is he serious?’ Yeah, Twine Time. But that song was a key to this album. Man, that just lit the fire for this record. It became one of the funnest tracks we did.”
Several tracks on Times Have Changed were recorded at the legendary Blackbird Studio in Nashville. “It had great hospitality, a great vibe, great tone, great equipment,” Brooks said. “And of course I got to get closer to some of the musicians who live there, Felix Cavaliere, Steve Cropper – they all live there, and it just created a great atmosphere. One of the key things for me was that we got Todd Mohr there, and he was willing to play rhythm guitar along with Lee Roy Parnell, so we got a nice little chemistry going with the three guitar parts together.”
‘Times’ also comes laden with original hits. Five of the eleven tracks were penned by Brooks. Raised on others’ music, he’s always considered the songwriting process to be as sacred. “It’s like having a baby”, he says. “You see it come to life. Once you play it live, it grows even more. That was the most fun part of it, for me: the creative side. Coming up with a song people can relate to, and you relate to, it just snowballs. It’s almost like therapy for me. Like the song Times Have Changed: I wrote that song years ago. I sent Steve my songs and he picked that one. It’s kind of timeless. Every day something’s changing. Now, when I play it live, you can see the effect of it. Initially, it was just an idea: just a riff. Now, this song has influence on people. We were just in Europe this year, after the bombing in Brussels. And we’re playing Brussels. I played that song; people were in tears. It helped them heal.”
It’s on that title track that Brooks brandishes what may be his finest songwriting talent: the ability to humanize social issues and unite different voices into one cohesive thought. That’s no more evident than in the latter stages of the song, in which Brooks deploys his longtime friend, Memphis’ Al Kapone, to drop 32 bars on what the future holds for our people.
“My whole intention, when I started with Golddigger and up through this one, was to be authentic enough for the older generation but have something that the younger generation could latch onto,” says Brooks. “I try to be that bridge. With Take Me Witcha, I’ve got a rapper on that. On The Torch we went with Al Kapone. He’s a bridge. He’s a bridge from blues to hip-hop. With music, it all comes from the heart. It comes from the heart and from the soul. In blues, it doesn’t matter what you’re talking about, it definitely relates.
“That was my intention on this record: to build that bridge.”