In the Olympic tradition, when the torch gets passed on, the flame transfers from one sure hand to the next — keeping it burning, while at the same time moving forward. It’s a fitting image for young Chicago guitar hero RONNIE BAKER BROOKS on his aptly titled third release, THE TORCH. Not only does he sing with soulful fire and play with a white-hot intensity; he’s also carrying the torch from the previous generation of soul and blues greats and moving the music into the future.
As the 17 original songs on THE TORCH make clear, RBB is the right man for the job. Brooks grew up steeped in American music tradition yet his focus remains resolutely on the future. As well as anyone of his generation, he knows the transcendent release at the heart of soul, blues and rock. He knows because, as the son of blues great Lonnie Brooks, he came of age watching the fieriest guitar players and most soulful singers of a previous era express their deepest feelings through their music.
“I grew up among the best of the best,” Brooks says. “Every time I play, I feel like I’ve got to do it with the authenticity and passion that I saw in guys like Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and my father. But I also have to put my twist on it. None of those guys repeated what came before them.”
Brooks’ twist involves enlivening blues-rock with deep soul and modern hip-hop vocals and funk rhythms. Working with Minneapolis producer Jellybean Johnson, a veteran collaborator of Prince and Janet Jackson, Brooks takes roots sounds and transforms them into something that spans the ages.
“I like to think of how Muddy Waters took the Mississippi blues he heard in his youth and modernized it for his times by making it electric and harder,” Brooks explains. “That’s what I’m trying to do for my generation. I want to take what’s authentic and powerful about the music I grew up loving and bring in other influences without losing the heart and conviction of it.”
Brooks’ personal touch also shines through in the concise, colorful songs for THE TORCH, all of which he wrote. He draws on the choppy, hip-shaking rhythms of funk, the emotional truth of soul and the forcefulness of rock to bring a distinctive dimension to his groundbreaking sound. Who else would, or could, record a song featuring classic Chicago artists Lonnie Brooks, Eddy Clearwater, Jimmy Johnson and the late Willie Kent with another highlighting rapper Al Kapone.
“I wanted to do something that would bring young people to the blues, and then give them the real hardcore thing at the same time,” Brooks says. “When I grew up, all my friends listened to rap and funk, and I listened to the blues. So I heard their music and they heard mine. I think we both saw some connection between them. I like that line in the movie “Hustle & Flow” when they say this new rap song ain’t nothing but “Backdoor Man” written for modern streets. It’s a hip-hop world right now, but I want to bring a little blues to the party.”
Indeed, Brooks’ collaboration with Kapone on “If It Don’t Make Dollars, Then It Don’t Make Sense” shows a streetwise philosophy that could’ve fit in next to the Three Six Mafia on the “Hustle & Flow” soundtrack. On the other hand, Brooks sings like a Memphis soul king on the open-hearted “Be a Good Man” a pledge that he’ll always try to live honorably and treat his woman with respect.
Elsewhere, Brooks shows off his funk chops on “It’s On” suggesting he’s learned a thing or two hanging out with the Prince crew in Minneapolis, while “You Wrong For That Now” features the kind of all-out guitar workout that draws on Texas toasters like Freddie King, Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Brooks flexes his musical muscle at a time when he sees a new vitality being brought to the music through himself, Shemekia Copeland and Bernard Allison. He’s convinced this music would be considered as relevant and as powerful as the latest hits by Kanye West or Beyonce Knowles if exposed to young listeners.
“You can see it in the success blues-influenced players like John Mayer and Jonny Lang have enjoyed,” Brooks says. “All they needed was to have their music heard, and people loved it. That’s all it will take.”
But for all of the varied influences on THE TORCH, the song Brooks is most proud of is “The Torch of the Blues”, the tune that gave the album its title. The song features Brooks with his father and heroes Eddy Clearwater, Jimmy Johnson and the late Willie Kent, who worked on the session shortly before his death in March 2006.
“Being there with my dad, Eddy Clearwater, Jimmy Johnson and Willie Kent, all of whom I admire so much, that was a dream come true. We all played our butts off that day and had a blast.”
Brooks has earned his spot on the front lines. He spent a dozen years backing his father, watching how the master entertainer drew enthusiastic responses night after night. For years, the younger Brooks put his lessons on stage every night, opening his father’s show to great response. With his father’s blessing, he left the band to strike out on his own shortly after releasing his own debut album, Golddigger in 1998.
Like his father before him, Brooks became a Chicago blues mainstay, playing regularly in Chicago area clubs. After the release of his second album, 2001’s Take Me Witcha, he hit the road for what turned out to be a seemingly non-stop three-year tour, picking up devoted new fans all along the way. And while he hadn’t planned to take five years between recordings, he did want to do it right. He made up for lost time by packing as many tunes as possible on THE TORCH.
“The good thing is I had time to test almost all of these songs on an audience and to work them out with the band”, Brooks says. “We knew what songs people loved, and we got them just the way we want them. It gave us a lot of confidence in the studio knowing that people already loved these songs.”
Indeed, the album celebrates all that Ronnie Baker Brooks is — a man with both a legacy and a vision, a man uniquely suited to carry THE TORCH.
Michael McCall, July 2006