Blues is a genre in constant evolution. During the last 20 years, many different layers of different sounds have been infused into this genre, from Rock, to R&B, Soul and many more. A lot of different artists have tried to apply their own trademark to the new sounds they have mashed with the blues, some with successful results, others a bit less.
One of the most innovative pioneers of the new sound forms that the blues has assumed through the last decades is certainly Chicago-born guitar veteran Ronnie Baker Brooks. Son of the late great Lonnie Brooks, a symbol of the true Chicago Blues sadly passed away this year age 83, Ronnie Baker Brooks started to learn how to play guitar age six, to then follow his father's steps by touring with him for almost twenty years.
After a couple of albums on his belt, 2006 saw the release of a magnificent album called The Torch, a record that was unanimously welcomed by fans and worldwide press as one of the blues albums of the year, thanks to its ferocious sound. Since then, the guitarist and singer/songwriter has worked a lot behind the scenes of the music business, without releasing any new material until the dawn of 2017, when finally Times Have Changed, an album produced by the talented Steve Jordan, was released via the label Mascot Label Group/Provogue.
Times Have Changed encapsulates minutely all about Baker Brook's artistry, displaying all his love to genres very close to his heart, Blues aside, like Funk, Soul and R&B. The record is a sort of celebration of Baker Brook's musical vision, through some of the finest lyrics that the artist from Illinois has ever written in his long career. Many of Baker Brooks fellow friends musician are also present as Special Guests on the album, from the late greats Bobby Bland and Lonnie Brooks to Steve Cropper and Todd Mohr, among others.
When Bluebird Reviews has the privilege of talking to Baker Brooks, prior to his father's passing, the guitarist sounds in good mood and the obvious first question goes on what took so long Baker Brooks by releasing a new album. "Well, there are a number of reasons. I have been working with other artists, producing records, songwriting, collaborating with other artists and appearing as guests on their records, all that without including lots of touring and raising my 14 years-old daughter. Truth to be told, we started recording this album in 2013 and we finally managed to get it released in January this year. It's great to have finally found the time to release a record of mine. I managed to hook up with Steve Jordan, the producer and we finally made it happen".
Times Have Changed, Baker Brook's new album, includes 5 new songs and some unexpected covers, something that the artist had never done before on any of his previous records. "This is indeed my first record including covers. On my previous albums, I wrote every song on each of them, therefore this was a completely different challenge for me, because I've never done covers before and it took a little while to decide which songs to cover on Times Have Changed. When I met Steve Jordan, one of his first questions was "We've got to include some covers, Man, which one would you like to pick up for the album?". The first one I wanted to cover was Old Love, by Robert Cray and Eric Clapton, then I picked Give Me Your Love, another one of my all-time favorites. The other covers were kind of facilitated by Steve Jordan, to capture the vibes of the album we were going to record".
Jordan is one of the hottest names when it comes to produce records, so much so that even the great Robert Cray, in an exclusive interview with our website, called the NY producer an "inspired genius". Surely Baker Brooks had a ball in recording Times Have Changed with Jordan, given his reputation as a producer. "Working with him was an honor. At first, the initial talks of working together on a record was a bit intimidating for me, to be honest, because of his body of work. I have a lot of respect and admiration for Steve. The thought of being locked in a studio with him was a "little intimidating" (chuckles). You know, in the past I was used to work with producers of the calibre of Jellybean Johnson, a real talent. But by the same token, I have also always dreamed of working with another big talent, just like Steve and that dream came true through my new album. With Steve, once we got the ball rolling, he made me feel really comfortable. He just said to me: "Look at the talents we've got around you, we've got your back, Ronnie" and that made me feel really good. You know, in past years, working with Jellybean, I was writing and arranging all the songs and he was the trusted second pair of ears listening to what I was doing, allowing me to be myself and build my confidence as an artist. That type of experience enabled me to build the confidence I needed with Steve, it sort of prepared me for the next step in my career, which was working with Steve Jordan. The Man is a walking encyclopedia on music, equipment, you name it. He's just got a huge musical vocabulary and I have learned a lot by working with him. He's that kind of guy that doesn't ask you to warm up before a take, he would just say "just plug in and go". Often, a tune would be perfect for him on the first or the second take. Just when I think I am warming up, he would just stop me and say: "That's it, leave it alone, you got it". Steve likes to capture the immediacy on a song without re-working on it. I have learned by B.B. King that, once a producer says "I've got it", you got to leave it alone and that's what we did. He has been great with me, he would just press the Record button and say: "Let's Go". That type of vibe that he brought in was a vital part of Times Have Changed and I am really proud of this album".
Times Have Changed is a special record in many different ways. One of the most touching moment of the record came by hearing Bobby Bland's voice in a song of the album called Old Love and we are just wondering how long time ago Baker Brooks recorded this tune with Bland. "You know, Gio, it had to be about 4 years ago, about January 2013. Bobby was still with us at that time and we recorded the whole tune in Memphis. I had always a close relationship with the whole Bland's family. We did also a Blues Cruise together with him and my father and Bobby have been friend for almost forty-fifty years. It was like a great reunion for me, when we got together to record the song. I was at the same time shocked and happy that Bobby could record that song with me. He came into the studio and when he started, it was almost like hearing him preaching, like being at school, you know. Steve and the whole studio were quiet while Bobby talked, until he said at a certain point: "Well, we've got to do some work, fellas, let's get on the track" . That was such a surreal moment for me, because I told him that I used to steal the transistor radio while my dad was at his gigs and my mum was sleeping and hide it under my pillow. We had a radio station, WVON, that would play Bobby Bland, B.B. King, Johnny Taylor, Joe Tex, all that kind of stuff and I would listen to them until late at night, Man and I told him all that. To be with him in the studio recording that tune, as I said, it was a special and surreal moment at the same time".
Every new Ronnie Baker Brooks album, by the artist's own definition, reflects the weight of grown perspectives in his life and career. Given the huge commercial exposure and success of his previous album The Torch, Bluebird Reviews asks the Guitar Maestro whether his perspectives changed a lot from that album to the new one, both as a musician and as a songwriter. "Yes, definitely. I feel like I've grown and working with Steve, you definitely learn things like self-belief, because you are surrounded by so much talent and your confidence naturally grows. Also, I like always to make a connection with who I work with and with Steve, that connection was all around the studio when we recorded the album. That connection helped me to push myself to be a better musician, a better singer, a better songwriter and I definitely think that these aspects transpire in my new record. Same thing with The Torch. I consider every record a platform to grow from. I couldn't have done Times Have Changed without The Torch, I couldn't have done The Torch without Take Me Witcha etcetera etcetera. It's a journey, you know. I have learned from being around my dad that, in life, you never stop learning. Even guys like B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, they said exactly the same thing. Even the great Roy Buchanan, he was taking lessons until the day he died, I was told and he was a phenomenal guitarist. I learned that no one can master music but you can master your approach to the music and that's what I am trying to do on every record. To master my approach and my interpretation to music".
"Nothing remains the same, today is a brand new game, because times have changed". The title track of Baker Brook's new record is one of the finest songs he has written in the guitarist's glorious career. The lyrics can be interpreted in many ways and we are not entirely sure whether the lyrics refer to relationship among couples or is there any other hidden meaning, perhaps, about politic or even bigger social issues. "That's a good question, Gio. You know, an artist never reveals his inspiration or sources! (chuckles). Because, you know, if you put it out there just as it sounds, then a listener can take it to any direction they want it to go. With the Blues, and in a lot of music in general, not just the Blues, it's about relationships, you know, between men and women. If you can take the picture of the song and allow the listener to make their own interpretation of the lyrics, then you know that your job is done. Times Have Changed is timeless and I don't mean just my song, because times always change and they will always change. I would be very happy if everyone could relate to that song in different ways, the ones that suit them better, because it would mean the world to me. The strange thing is that I wrote that song initially for the Take Me Witcha album and at the time, we couldn't decide whether we wanted it to include the song on that album or not. When I played the song to Steve, he said to me: "Man, I like that a lot". When we got in the studio, because Steve heard the song just in an acoustic format played just by myself, we added the band in and then he put the strings on it and the song sounded already close to perfection. Than Steve said: "Man, we need to call Al Kapone". I had worked with Al Kapone on The Torch album, he did the track If It Don't Make Dollars, Then It Don't Make Sense. I knew him well, we get on really well, so I said to Steve: "Man, that's it, we need to get him here". When we did so... I tell you, Man, that was the glue, that was exactly what we needed, the proverbial icing on the cake!".
Throughout all the songs included in Times Have Changed, Baker Brook's appreciation and respect for the Stax and Motown period and their artists can be easily felt throughout the whole album. On this note, it must have certainly felt very special for the singer/songwriter to be able to pen a tune with the great Steve Cropper. We ask Baker Brooks how did the two of them met and when they decided to work together on the opening track of the record called Show Me. "Well, I had met Steve Cropper years ago, before this recording. We have done some shows together before and of course he knew my dad too. We went from Memphis, Tennessee to Nashville to record at Blackbird Studio. Steve Cropper is living in Nashville and funnily enough, Cropper and Jordan knew one another already because they worked together some time ago in The Steve Cropper Band. In that studio, we had this Joe Tex track and we (Brooks and Jordan) said to each other: "Man, it would be cool to have Steve Cropper on this". Steve Jordan called him, and he was like "Of Course!". He came down to the studio, laid the track down and I watched him doing it thinking that I was living another surreal moment right there, for this album! (chuckles). I thought about Cropper's stature as a musician and his contribution to music through the years and I said "Wow, this is awesome!".
One of Bluebird Review's favorite tracks on Times Have Changed is Joe Tex's cover of Give The Baby Anything The Baby Wants. The song features, as Special Guests, "Big Head" Todd Mohr and Eddie Willis, two superb musicians and it would be interesting to find out whether the idea to cover a Joe Tex song was a collective idea or solely Baker Brook's one. "Well, it was Steve's idea to get Eddie Willis on that tune. I tell you how I came about that tune, Gio. I love Joe Tex, he is one of my favorite artists and I always like to play one of his biggest hits, I Got You when I walk on stage at my shows. That tune really gets me going and get me ready for a show. I have been listening to Tex's stuff since I was a kid, because my dad was used to play a lot of Joe Tex's stuff around the house. Steve Jordan said to me one day: "I know you like I Got You but let's try something else out of his repertoire". We went through a selection of Tex's songs until we got to Give The Baby Anything The Baby Wants. I gotta be honest with you, I wasn't very familiar with that tune. I might have surely heard it few times but strangely, it didn't stay with me for some reasons, like I Got You or Skinny Legs, for example. Man, when Steve started playing the groove, with Willie Weeks on bass and my friend "Big Head" Todd Mohr, the key was Todd playing that guitar riff, because when I was learning the song and practicing it by myself, I was trying to play that lick and singing it at the same time. But when Todd came in and played the guitar riff, that freaked me. When I heard it, I said "Ooh, ok, let's go now!" (chuckles). I felt the energy in the air and I just said: "Ok, then, now I am ready, let's do this now". When we were actually rolling, while we were warming up, Steve Jordan was already recording as he always does and when we heard the take, we all said: "Wow, that's it, Man, done". We got that song in one take. Then, when we got back to Memphis, I said I wanted to get Eddie Willis on this tune too. When he then came in and laid down his track, that felt like another awesome and surreal moment for me. When he was warming up to get his tones and to record the track, he was playing all that Motown stuff that he had done back many years ago and I was going "Oh, my God,!!". Suddenly, you remember all the hits he played on in those days and it felt like heaven. What a great privilege for me it has been to work with him. Willis is a very kind man and it was an honor for me to be in the same room with that guy".
Ronnie Baker Brooks often mentioned in various interview that, since the beginning of his career, he had always tried to build music bridges across many genres, like Soul, R&B, Hip-Hop and Blues, for example. Before parting company with this highly talented musician, Bluebird Reviews is wondering whether the songs on Times Have Changed, in the guitarist's opinion, have been able to create that final layer of musical cement needed to complete the sonic bridge he started almost two decades ago. "Well, to be honest, Gio, I will keep going to try and get that bridge completed for as long as I have the strength to make music. This bridge you were talking about has always been my motivation, meaning to continue my family's musical legacy and to try and take the blues to the next generation. If I can be a link in the chain to build that bridge for the next generation to come, then I am honored. Because if I think about all the men and women artists that came before me and the work that they have done on building this bridge you were talking about, for me, knowing to have somehow contributed to build that bridge, it will be one of my life's biggest achievements. I don't think that I can ever finish that bridge by myself. Probably nobody will be able to, because that is an ongoing bridge that keeps building through the next generations of music fans and contributing artists to come. I just try to spread the love for universal music in the same way that I was raised with, by listening to stuff like Hip-hop, Blues, Rock and Roll, Gospel and all that. I just want to try to make people that, say, love either genres like the Blues or the Gospel, to try and relate also to different styles of music through my songs. But that bridge that you mentioned in your question, it will never be completed, Man".
Ronnie Baker Brooks is currently on Tour. Below the next Tour Dates of the Times Have Changed Tour:
1st July 2017 - Randers, Denmark (DK) - City Blues Festival
6th July 2017 - London, United Kingdom (GB) - Nell's Jazz & Blues
8th July 2017 - Gaildorf, Germany (D) - Bluesfest Gaildorf