Legendary Chicago blues musician Lonnie Brooks, who started out as a banjo-picking lad in Louisiana decades before breathing new life into the tune “Sweet Home Chicago,” died Saturday at 83.
Brooks pondered his legacy in a story that appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times in 1993.
“I’ll be on the totem pole, with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Elmore James, Magic Sam, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Koko Taylor, Little Walter, many others I can’t name. . . . I’ll probably be on the last spot.”
In a statement Sunday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel praised Brooks as “a Chicago blues legend with a towering talent and soulful style that won him legions of fans across the country and around the world. His celebrated career inspired generations of music lovers, garnered numerous awards and brought him from the clubs of Chicago’s West Side to the concert halls of Europe and beyond.”
When Brooks turned 70, the Chicago Blues Festival celebrated the milestone with a special show billed as “Lonnie Brooks’ 70th Year Celebration With His Family Band.”
Brooks was joined on stage by sons Ronnie Baker Brooks and Wayne Baker Brooks.
“It looked like a rug, looking at all those people,” Ronnie recalled Sunday of seeing the crowd. “Dad loved that.”
Actor Dan Aykroyd emceed Brooks’ 80th birthday bash at the House of Blues in 2013, one of the last times Brooks took the stage to play. Big Head Todd was among the many musicians who joined him.
“He loved his fans and his family, and he loved music,” Ronnie Baker Brooks said.
His family announced Brooks’ death in a posting on his sons’ Facebook pages.
Brooks put down roots in Chicago 58 years ago.
Legendary crooner Sam Cooke — of “You Send Me” fame — met Brooks in 1959 while the two were on tour in Atlanta and persuaded Brooks to come to Chicago, Ronnie said. Cooke set him up with a room at his mom and dad’s house for a few weeks while introducing him around town.
There’s even a story to how Lonnie Brooks got his name.
“My dad’s real name was Lee Baker, but he was going by the name Guitar Junior when he got to Chicago. . . . It turned out that Muddy Waters was already playing with a guy named Guitar Junior, so dad changed it to Lonnie Brooks,” Ronnie said.
“He chose Lonnie Brooks because his best friend from growing up in Louisiana, his last name was Brooks. And he changed his first name to Lonnie because people down there they used to call him ‘Little Lee,’ but it came out sounding like ‘Lonnie’ with the Cajun accent.”
Chicago fell in love with him, a relationship that was cemented even more in 1980 when he recorded a hit version of Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago.”
“That song was so popular, man,” recalled Ronnie. “He was like a walking advertisement for Chicago.”
But his style of blues was not universally well-received.
“My dad had a lot of Louisiana influence and a Texas influence before he landed in Chicago,” Ronnie said. “He was like a gumbo, he put it all together, man. And he had his own sounds, but at one time people were saying, ‘That’s not the blues.’ ”
His great-grandfather was a banjo player and got Brooks into picking, a skill that steered him through life and helped him provide for nine children, Ronnie said.
“It’s difficult being a musician and raising a family, let alone playing the blues. And he did that,” Ronnie said. “He taught me and my brother Wayne how to play and be men. And there was always love in the house.”
Brooks was one of 12 children and left school after the seventh grade to work in sugar cane and cotton fields near Dubuisson, Louisiana.
“He was always pushing education because he was never able to go to school,” Ronnie said.
While Brooks dreamed of creating a family band like The Jackson 5, he let his kids choose their own directions.
“As a kid I quit playing to play basketball because none of my friends were playing blues, they were into sports,” Ronnie said. “And my dad would play all night and then come to my basketball games Saturday morning and then we’d go out to eat. And all that time I didn’t know that I’d broken his heart because I quit to play basketball. He didn’t tell me until I got back into music.”
Ronnie and Wayne gigged with their father for years, playing checkers and cards in hotels all over the world between shows, before each branched off into solo careers.
The three reunited on stage around 2011 for the “Brooks Family Tour.”
“Those were some of his proudest moments, being on stage with us,” Ronnie said.
Brooks’ other loves included billiards, Western movies and karate.
“We grew up playing checkers or wrestling on the floor, always teaching me and Wayne to defend ourselves because he loved martial arts and boxing,” Ronnie said.
“He was one of the fastest men I knew for his age,” he said. “I would always toss a napkin at him at the dinner table to see if his reflexes were still there and he would catch it every time. He had protective bluesman hands.”
Brooks raised his family in several South Side neighborhoods, including Washington Park, Englewood and Brainerd. He most recently lived with his son Ronnie in Dolton.
Brooks is also survived by his sons Russell Baker, Lee Baker III and Bobby Lauderdale, and daughters Denise Baker Parker, Jackie Graham and Gina Baker Landers. His daughter Linda Williams died in 2007 from breast cancer.
Services are pending.