The Dinner Bell Bluesman

It’s no accident that the Santa Barbara Blues Society chose Lonnie Brooks to perform at its 30th anniversary show at the Earl Warren Showgrounds on Saturday night. After all, like the guitarist, the Blues Society has survived even when it wasn’t thriving, and is now said to be the longest continually operating such organization in the country. Brooks, one of the last of great Chicago blues men – who didn’t actually click with mainstream audiences until Alligator Records put him on a compilation back in 1978 – is still going strong at 73, although he hasn’t released a new record in a decade, citing the financial drain of downloading.

We caught up with Brooks – born Lee Baker, Jr. – over the phone from his home on Chicago’s South Side.

Q. I read that it was Sam Cooke who got you to Chicago.

A. Yeah, I was playing a gig in Atlanta where Sam was headlining. My friend who owned a cab company had sent someone ‘round to pick me up right when the show was over. When Sam got in his limo, he didn’t lock his door, and all these girls came piling in there, so he jumped out other side and ran up to me and asked if he could share my cab. I drove him over to the hotel and we started talking. He told me he never heard anybody play the guitar like that – I was playing swampy rock ‘n’ roll. I was scared to even say anything but he asked me to show him some licks, and eventually come on the road with him, and later stay in his house in Chicago for six weeks. That’s how I got there.

After a while in Chicago, you took some time off. What happened?

Disco. There were so many blues men in Chicago, we were a dime a dozen anyway, and I was mostly playing cover music, and then disco killed it. I got tired of working for twenty dollars a night. But I found out you could make a living in Europe, where blues was more accepted. When I came back, there still wasn’t no money for the blues so I figured I’d let them miss me for a while. I took a job die-casting, pouring this hot metal. I wound up staying there for three years, but it gave me a chance to stay out of the streets and write songs at night. And that’s when Alligator put me on that record.

What made you thrive again in the 1980s?

Well, people were buying my records because I think I had a new sort of sound that combined old style Chicago with the country and swamp-rock stuff I’d learned back in Louisiana… Some call it “voodoo blues” but it don’t matter to me. Call me anything you want. Just don’t forget to call me when it’s time to eat.

What keeps blues alive?

Blues never dies, it just gets pushed down when new stuff comes in. But it always comes back around. If you stick with it rather than running to the most popular music, you’ll be OK. That’s what I was doing back then, always trying to cut a record in the new mold. It’s better to just develop whatever you do as strong as you can because people will listen to the truth.

Your son Wayne is in your band. Are you happy he followed your footsteps?

Oh, man, yeah. He’s lighting up. He would just watch me all night and now he gives me ideas. He’s producing other people now. He loves it.