Ronnie Baker Brooks
Ronnie Baker Brooks

Times Bulletin news writer

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VAN WERT - Ronnie Baker Brooks is more than just the son of a blues legend.

Brooks, the son of blues great Lonnie Brooks, isn't a clone of his famous father, but he's not overwhelmed by the burden of being compared to him either.

Speaking from his tour bus on the way to Buffalo, New York, Brooks denied that his family tree makes things tougher on him. "I don't look at it like that," he said. "I take it as a blessing. I don't get intimidated by it. It's a lot of pressure with the expectations to live up to, but I accepted that a long time ago."

His father, Lonnie, grew up in Louisiana and played in clubs around Chicago through the sixties before achieving legendary status with the "Voodoo Blues" sound. Ronnie's childhood was different and that is reflected in his music.

"I can only sing about what I experienced," he explained. "I didn't grow up on the Mississippi picking cotton, but I did grow up in the ghetto flats of Chicago, so I can talk about that and put today's sound with that and try to elevate it to where the sound of the day is there. But the spirit of those guys before me is there as well."

Ronnie shared that he plays about 100-150 dates a year, but he would love to play more. He used to tour with his father and play 250 dates a year, but there aren't a lot of clubs left where a touring blues band can play in the middle of the week anymore. He explained, "It's kinda tough to keep a tour together. You know I have five people on tour with me, and you have to keep them, uh, paid!"

Music wasn't always at the top of Brooks' priority list. Some time after his stage debut with his dad on his ninth birthday, young Ronnie decided not to pursue music. "I had to be a kid, man," he chuckled. "My dad never forced it on me, but I was around a lot of older musicians and I didn't have a chance to be a kid."

Today, Brooks is an accomplished songwriter and guitar player, partly because of the work ethic instilled in him by his father. "He wouldn't allow me to play if I didn't sound good. He'd say, 'If you want to do these dates with me, you'd better get in there and do your homework. Don't sound like me. Learn from what I've done, but do it your own way.' That's what he said to me and my brother."

Ronnie has taken that advice to heart, working in influences of rhythm and blues and rock musicians to that basic blues sound to give his music a distinct edge. His latest album was produced by Jellybean Johnson, who has produced pop hits for Prince and Janet Jackson. The blend of Chicago blues, rhythm and blues and rock is what Brooks is shooting for. He related, "Dad just took it to a whole 'nother level, you know. And I'm just trying to take my part of the legacy to another level if I can."

As you might expect, music has been an ever-present fixture in Brooks' life. Growing up in Chicago with a blues legend for a father led to a different kind of lifestyle than most kids, but Brooks wasn't aware of just how special his upbringing was until much later.

He remembered, "It was different, but at first I thought it was normal. I used to play at Buddy Guy's house with his kids and I'd see him playing a guitar and think, 'Oh that guy's playing the guitar like my daddy.' I didn't know it was Buddy Guy! Or Koko Taylor would come over to the house or we'd go to their house, or Hubert Sumlin would come by the house. Then when I got to a certain age I realized these people are musicians who are doing something. Then later I realized these are legends, as I got older and got more into the music and started doing my homework."

Brooks can trace his musical heritage back to his great-grandfather who used to play the banjo at juke joints in Louisiana. "He was the one that kinda taught my dad about music and exposed him to it," Brooks said.

These days, Ronnie loves the opportunity to play. This week Brooks and his band will play gigs in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Van Wert and Louisville. Obviously, Van Wert seems a little out of place in that list of cities. But the thought that there aren't as many blues fans in this area as the bigger cities doesn't matter much to Brooks.

He explained, "I just like playing in front of people that appreciate music. If they appreciate music, then I think by giving us a chance, they'll have a good time.

Winning new fans to the blues invigorates Brooks. "I take it on as a challenge, like spreading the word. I'm doing what I gotta do to keep the blues alive. If it's in Van Wert or in Chicago it's the same approach. I just like to be around people who appreciate music."

Brooks will be playing at Fountain Park in Van Wert this Saturday night. There will be no admission charge.