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The Real Blues By Any Other Name

Lonnie Brooks
Kirk West

Brooks Brother: Guitarist Lonnie Brooks,
nee Guitar Junior, a.k.a. Lee Baker Jr., knows
zydeco, R&B and soul as well as the blues.

Lonnie Brooks keeps changing names, but the blues stays the same

By Nicky Baxter

BLUES GUITARIST and singer Lonnie Brooks is laughing aloud as he explains why he's really not Lonnie Brooks--or Guitar Junior, as he was known for a spell some years ago. So, who is he?

"It was funny how that come about," he says. "My real name is Lee Baker Jr. And I had a drummer, and his name was John Davis Jr. So, one night a lady called out, "Hey, 'Junior!' And the drummer turned around.

She said, 'Naw, naw, naw, gui-tar Junior.' And she was near the [bandstand] microphone, so everybody in the club heard her." Not knowing him from Adam (or Lee), the crowd began chanting his new nickname.

Recognizing a snappy stage sobriquet when he heard one, the native Louisianan figured he'd use it as his professional handle just long enough to separate himself from the competition.

That transitory decision stretched into years when, shortly thereafter, he released his first single, an R&B number called "Family Rules," under his newfound alias. The tune garnered a fair amount of regional play in the Louisiana and Texas, increasing the visibility of "Guitar Junior" and further obscuring his real identity.

With an eye on improving his career opportunities, Baker/Junior migrated to Chicago. Unfortunately, there was another musician using the same stage name--Luther Johnson--so Baker switched from Guitar Junior to Lonnie Brooks. In due time, his musical direction would change as well.

Until he settled in Chicago, Brooks didn't play the blues, although he had experimented with it, like most zydeco-loving Louisiana musicians. In fact, when he was first offered a gig with zydeco kingpin Clifton Chenier in the mid-'50s, Brooks was primed to play the blues.

"I wanted to be like Lightnin' Hopkins or John Lee Hooker," Brooks confesses. "But I didn't have the feel for it then. I was used to hearin' Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, so that's what I was good at."

Indeed, "Family Rules" (which he claims came to him in a dream) and its more rocking successor, "The Crawl," could never be mistaken for the black-belt country boogie of Hopkins or Hooker, just as you'd never mistake Sam Cooke's curlicued ululations for Ray Charles's bawdy soul.

Cooke, as it turns out, was Brooks' ticket to ride out of Southern obscurity. "I was in Atlanta, Ga., ... when I met Sam Cooke. See, I wanted to change labels, and he told me to come to Chicago. That was in 1959."

Some 30 years later, Brooks has not only mastered the blues, he's done it without giving up the rock, R&B and zydeco he was weaned on.

PICK ANY Brooks recording--Bayou Lightning, Turn on the Night or Roadhouse Blues, his most current album--and expect to hear some very atypical sounds for a blues player.

An example: When Brooks was in Montreaux for the jazz festival, country star Roy Clark overheard Brooks' nimble fretwork and invited him to guest on his TV show Hee Haw.

Though the superb Hot Shot (1983) has yet to be surpassed in terms of sheer paint-peeling power, Roadhouse Blues finds the 62-year-old musician in more than tolerable form.

Though no B.B. or Albert King, Brooks can fill every iota of space in any room with his voice, relying on raw power alone.

Still, it's his chameleonlike guitar that makes Lonnie Brooks something approximating a national treasure. He knows his "bluestory" front to back: from the smokestack Lightnin' to the woozy whine of Albert King.

Ultimately, though, labeling him a bluesman is about as accurate as calling Bobby Bland a soul singer. You can't help suspecting that Lonnie Brooks, nee Guitar Junior, a.k.a. Lee Baker Jr., required all those name tags because he couldn't fit all that music under just one.

Lonnie Brooks plays Saturday (Oct. 19) at 9pm at JJ's Blues, 3439 Stevens Creek Blvd., Santa Clara. Call for ticket information. (408/243-6441)

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From the October 17-23, 1996 issue of Metro

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