by Steve Buschbacher
The year 2016 has been reviled for the loss of so many notable people in entertainment and specifically, our community of musicians. Before you besiege me with a list of musicians who we lost last year and what they meant to you, let me stop you. 2017 is turning out to be the same kind of heartache for our sister and brother musicians.
In the space of two weeks beginning March 16, 2017, we lost three absolute giants in the blues community.
On March 16, James Cotton passed. Born in Mississippi in 1935, he moved north to Chicago in 1955 to be in Muddy Waters’ band. He became known for his wild playing style coupled with on stage back flips. He often played his blues harp so hard that it would fall apart. On one occasion when this happened, he smiled at the audience and said, “Oh, I’m just warming up.”
The man who became known as “Superharp” had quite an impressive list of notable musicians with whom he played. Billy Boy Arnold, Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Freddie King, Charlie Musslewhite, Carlos Santana, Otis Spann, Taj Mahal, Big Mama Thornton, Muddy Waters, and Sonny Boy Williamson II are just a few with whom he performed.
Two days later, on March 18, we lost Chuck Berry. He was 90.
What can I say about Chuck Berry that has not been said already? He defined rock and roll in its infancy. The music he recorded at the legendary Chess Studios at 2120 S. Michigan in Chicago would fill every home in the world by the end of the 1950s.
My favorite story about Chuck Berry involves his first major hit, Maybelline. Chuck had adapted a country song called “Ida Red” and renamed it “Ida Mae”. Leonard Chess was intrigued by the idea of a black man singing a country song but he thought the title was, in his words, “too hillbilly”. While thinking of an alternative title, he spotted a tube of lipstick on a window sill and the song was renamed and subsequently burned into our memories.
Who does not instantly recognize the opening guitar riff of “Johnny B. Goode”? It is as much a signature sound as the opening of “Stairway To Heaven” or “My Girl”. And how pervasive was his influence? His music has been covered by artists like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, The Animals, The Yardbirds, Duane Allman, The Band, Jimi Hendrix, and AC/DC just to name a few.
The day Chuck Berry died, a little bit of us all died.
On April 1, we lost Lonnie Brooks, the patriarch of a Chicago Blues family that boasts Ronnie Baker Brooks and Wayne Baker Brooks.
Lonnie Brooks was born Lee Baker in Louisiana and first started working as a musician under the name Guitar Jr. in Port Arthur, Texas. He moved to Chicago in 1960 where, since there was already a local performer named Luther Johnson who was performing under the name “Guitar Jr.”, he adopted the stage name of Lonnie Brooks.
Lonnie Brooks was a thoroughly engaging showman who was not interested in playing as many notes as fast as possible in his solos. Instead, he treated the listener to a melodic delight that few guitarists have been able to even approach. If you had ever seen him perform, you would never forget the good time you had. If you had ever met him, you would have been treated to an interaction with one of the best people you could encounter.
The blues community … nah … the music community …. NAH … the WORLD is a sadder place for the loss of these three giants. But the music they left behind can still make our existence a happy one. Put in a CD or cue up a song on your player, put on headphones, and turn up the volume. There … don’t we feel all better now?
Thanks to James Cotton, Chuck Berry, and Lonnie Brooks from the world.