Friday, December 14, 2012

Bayou Lightnin' - The Blues of Lonnie Brooks

When I first started listening to the blues, a lot of the music that I listened to came from Alligator Records, which was only natural at the time.  Alligator's LP's, cassettes, and CD's were pretty easy to find in most record stores and their slogan, "Genuine Houserockin' Music," certainly was an appropriate one.  For someone moving toward the blues from the rock arena, the electric guitars and the rock-mixed rhythm sections were definitely an attractive quality.  Their roster of Chicago musicians (Son Seals, Hound Dog Taylor, Koko Taylor), along with some of Texas' finest (Albert Collins, Fenton Robinson), plus a few seasoned blues/rock vets (Johnny Winter, Lonnie Mack, Roy Buchanan) was a formidable one.

One of the first performers from Alligator that caught my attention was Lonnie Brooks.  He was a perfect fit in the "Genuine Houserockin' Music" line-up.  With his Louisiana roots, he was able to combine the best of the Swamp blues and pop of the 50's and 60's with the best of the Chicago sound, mixed with a little bit of country, and create his own distinctive sound, which still sounds as vital today as it did in the late 60's.  He's one of the few blues artists who rated his own article in Rolling Stone.  He's appeared on Hee Haw, done commercials in the U.K. and had songs featured in several movies.

Lonnie Brooks' brand of blues didn't, and doesn't, really sound like anybody else's.  It wasn't just Louisiana blues, it wasn't Chicago blues, it wasn't swamp blues, it wasn't R&B or soul.....It was Lonnie Brooks, through and through.

Brooks was born Lee Baker, Jr., on December 18, 1933, in Dubuisson, Louisiana.  He learned to play banjo from his grandfather as a youth, but didn't even start playing guitar seriously until he was in his early 20's, and by then, he was living in Port Arthur, TX.  It was in Port Arthur that Baker heard artists like Clarence Gatemouth Brown, T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, and Long John Hunter.  Pretty soon, he was able to pick up some of King's and Hunter's guitar licks and he attracted the attention of Clifton Chenier, who invited Baker to join his touring band.  This lasted until Chenier decided to record on the West Coast and Baker opted to stay in Port Arthur to continue working his day job.

By the late 50's, young Baker had embarked on a solo career, recording for Goldband Records as "Guitar Junior."  He issued the big regional hit, "Family Rules," which is still a favorite of the swamp pop genre.  Other familiar tunes include "The Crawl," "Roll Roll Roll," and "Pick Me Up On Your Way Down."

Hungry for more success, Baker moved to Chicago, where he found out there was another "Guitar Junior" (Luther Johnson) and where he also found out his Gulf Coast brand of blues wasn't what was hot.  He learned a whole new brand of blues in the Windy City, recording as a session guitarist for Vee-Jay (playing guitar on Jimmy Reed's "Big Boss Man"), and cutting a series of singles (mostly R&B-based) for multiple labels in the 60's.

It was also during this time that Baker  recorded two singles for Mercury Records, "The Horse" and "All of My Life," changing his name to Lonnie Brooks in the process, but also recording an album as Guitar Junior for Capitol in 1969, Broke and Hungry, which sunk without a trace, taking the nickname with it.

In the 70's, Brooks participated in a European tour, recording an album for Black & Blue while overseas, then he settled in a regular gig at Pepper's Hideout in Chicago.  It was at Pepper's that he  attracted the attention of Bruce Iglauer, head of Alligator Records, who placed four of Brooks' tunes (including "Two Headed Man") on his 1978 anthology series, Living Chicago Blues.  This was followed closely by Brooks' debut recording for Alligator, Bayou Lightning, in 1979.  The album was well-received and Brooks' brand of blues, mixing Chicago blues with Texas and Louisiana Swamp blues and R&B, began drawing a large following.

Since then, Brooks has recorded six additional solo efforts for Alligator, plus a recording with Hunter and Phillip Walker.  Each album has its own charms, with great songs like "Eyeballin'," "Got Lucky Last Night," and "End of the Rope."  His album, Wound Up Tight, is one of his most popular and featured Brooks with longtime Brooks fan Johnny Winter.  The wonderful collaboration with Hunter and Walker, titled Lone Star Shootout, is something of a Gulf Coast sequel to Alligator's previous three-way effort, Showdown!  To date, it is the last recording that Brooks has released, though he's appeared on other recordings by other blues artists.

Today, at 78 years old (79 next week on December 18), he remains one of the Blues' biggest attractions, appearing at festivals and in clubs either with his own band, or with his sons' (Wayne Baker Brooks and Ronnie Baker Brooks) bands as The Brooks Family.  A master showman, he has given no signs of slowing down any time soon.

Selected Discography:

Wound Up Tight (Alligator):  My favorite of Brooks' albums for Alligator, though Bayou Lightning comes in a close second.  This disc fits the Alligator slogan better than any of his others.  Johnny Winter guests on a couple of tracks, including the tightly wound title track, and the rowdy opening cut, "Got Lucky Last Night," a second cousin of sorts to Brooks' early hit, "The Crawl."  The rest of the disc is equally strong.  Like all of Brooks' Alligator catalog, this disc features a wide variety of blues, all well done.

Deluxe Edition (Alligator):  This captures some of Brooks' finest moments for Alligator, featuring tracks from all of his recordings, covering a wide range of his catalog.  Really, if you like this disc, and you should, you would be well-served to check out his other recordings for the label.  Brooks' brand of "voodoo blues" is unique and original and all first-rate quality.

The Crawl (Charly):  This is a collection of Brooks', recording as Guitar Junior, sides for Goldband from the late 50's...heavy on the swamp blues sound, which mixed blues, country, and rock and roll seamlessly at its best.  Brooks mastered the sound pretty quickly and later blended this sound with his Chicago-based sound with successful results.  Brooks later recreated a couple of these tracks on several Alligator albums, including Lone Star Shootout.

Lone Star Shootout (Alligator) (with Long John Hunter and Phillip Walker):  This is a highly enjoyable set with Brooks reprising several early hits and trading licks with two of Texas's finest guitarists.  Hunter had just achieved a measure of success due to a successful release on tiny Spindletop Records, which resulted in a deal with Alligator.  Walker, like Brooks a former Clifton Chenier guitarist, had a journeyman-like career of impressive consistency. This recording is a high point for all three men.  Local legend Ervin Charles is also featured on a couple of tracks.

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