Over the course of his career, guitarist/vocalist Lonnie Brooks has come a long way. From his early days backing zydeco pioneer Clifton Chenier to his years as a hit-producing Gulf Coast R&B artist to his emergence as an innovative Chicago bluesman, Lonnie has created an instantly recognizable, signature sound and style. Combining rock ‘n’ roll, Memphis soul, Cajun boogie, country twang and hard Chicago blues, Brooks defies simple classification. His massive voice and blistering guitar playing make every song he performs his own. And as anyone who’s ever seen him in concert can attest, his live performances are legendary for kick-starting a party and spreading a rollicking good time.
Lee Baker Jr. (Lonnie Brooks) was born in Dubuisson, Louisiana in 1933. He learned to play blues from his banjo-picking grandfather, but didn’t think about a professional music career until he moved to Port Arthur, Texas in the early 1950s. There he heard the music of Gatemouth Brown, T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Long John Hunter and others and began to think about making money from his music. One day, while Lonnie was strumming his guitar on his front porch, zydeco pioneer Clifton Chenier offered him a job. Before long Lonnie was recording his own songs and became a regional R&B star with a string of rockin’ singles, most notably “Family Rules” and “The Crawl,” recorded for the Goldband label under the name Guitar Junior.
The success of his singles led to numerous southern tours and a busy schedule of dancehalls, juke joints and roadhouses across Texas and Louisiana. In 1959, Lonnie found himself on a tour with the great Sam Cooke. The two became fast friends, and when Cooke suggested a move to Chicago, Lonnie was eager to go. The first thing the young Louisiana man discovered was that Chicago already had a Guitar Junior, so he changed his name to Lonnie Brooks. Lonnie became infatuated with the sound of deep Chicago blues and soon landed a job as a sideman with Jimmy Reed, with whom he toured and recorded. Brooks made a handful of singles throughout the 1960s (as well as appearing on a number of Chicago blues and R&B sessions), and, with his own band, he played nightly in the bars on the South and West sides of Chicago and in Gary and East Chicago, Indiana. In 1969, Capitol Records released Brooks’ very first album, Broke an’ Hungry, under his old stage name of Guitar Junior.
In 1975, Brooks toured Europe and reached more people than he ever had before. While there he recorded an album for the French Black and Blue label (reissued on Evidence). But his big break came in 1978 when Alligator Records president Bruce Iglauer chose Brooks to appear on the Grammy-nominated Living Chicago Blues anthology, for which Lonnie cut four songs. This led to a full contract with the label, and in 1979 his Alligator debut, Bayou Lightning, took the public by storm. The album won the prestigious Grand Prix du Disque Award from the 1980 Montreux Jazz Festival. While in Montreux, Lonnie befriended country star Roy Clark. Clark was so impressed with Lonnie, he arranged for an appearance on the popular country music television show Hee Haw.
Lonnie’s next break came with his scorching live performance on the Grammy-nominated Blues Deluxe anthology, cut at ChicagoFest in 1980. Alongside such stalwarts as Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, Lonnie more than held his own, breathing life and fire into what has become the quintessential version of “Sweet Home Chicago.” Lonnie’s next recording, Turn On The Night, added horns to the mix and showcased Brooks’ funkier side. Constant touring in the U.S. and abroad kept Brooks in the public eye, and a 1982 trip to Germany resulted in an hour-long Lonnie Brooks special broadcast on German television. Lonnie’s 1983 release, Hot Shot, was hailed by the New York Times as “the most ferocious new blues album of the year.” His next album, 1986’s Wound Up Tight, featured a guest appearance by Lonnie’s most famous fan, Johnny Winter, on guitar. Lonnie was one of Johnny’s favorite guitarists in the late 1950s. As a youngster in Beaumont, Texas, Johnny talked his way into Lonnie’s recording sessions to watch his idol at work. Rolling Stone took notice of the album, running a six-page feature on Lonnie. And the BBC broadcast an hour-long live performance to all of Great Britain.
By 1987, Lonnie’s teenage son, Ronnie Baker Brooks, was touring with the band. He made his recording debut on Lonnie’s Live From Chicago—Bayou Lightning Strikes, an album Guitar World described as being played with “a vengeance that’ll blow the lid off your speaker cabinets.” With Lonnie’s 1991 release, Satisfaction Guaranteed, the momentum continued. “This rocks,” said Option, “with Brooks shouting, growling and playing driving, well-placed guitar licks over a tight, no-nonsense rhythm section.” The roof-raising performances on the album led to major media coverage, including features and articles in The Washington Post, Village Voice, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, Guitar World, Living Blues, Blues Revue, and many other publications. And that wasn’t all. He spent the summer of 1993 on a national concert tour with B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, Junior Wells and Eric Johnson. And during the Chicago stop of his 1995 “From The Cradle” club tour, Eric Clapton honored Brooks by inviting the bluesman on stage for an impromptu, unforgettable jam at Buddy Guy’s Legends.
Roadhouse Rules hit in 1996, and featured Lonnie blasting out some of his most potent singing, writing and playing since his first hit, 1957’s “Family Rules.” The album was produced by Jim Gaines (Luther Allison, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Santana) and recorded in Memphis. In 1999, along with fellow Gulf Coast blues veterans Long John Hunter and Phillip Walker, Brooks released Lone Star Shootout, with all three electrifying guitarists engaged in a raucous game of one-upsmanship.
Lonnie Brooks has come a long way from his Louisiana and Texas roots. With his rocking, bluesy, funky mix of searing guitar, passionate vocals and innovative, original material, Brooks has always been a bluesman who speaks fluently to rock fans. His larger-than-life personality and abundance of talent makes every show he plays a blues-rocking, house-shaking, guitar-soaked throwdown.