Lonnie Brooks will be in Monroe on Feb. 23 for "The Big Gig."
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Lonnie Brooks is known for his soulful vocals and funky blues guitar. But growing up in Dubuisson, La., and Port Arthur, Texas, the music of the day was zydeco and country, and the blues was like a foreign language to him.
"I loved blues, but at the time I couldn't play the blues. I couldn't feel it," said Brooks, who will be one of the headliners during the month-long Monroe County 21st Annual Black History Month Blues Series.
The 74-year-old bluesman said he was too young - and couldn't afford tickets anyway - when stars such as Gatemouth Brown and B.B. King would come to town.
But where there was a will, there was a way.
"A bunch of us guys, we'd get together and they had these big six-foot fans. The place would be packed. The guys who could get in would stand around by the fan, we'd take a broomstick and stop the fan and crawl in. Then we'd go change our clothes in the bathroom and put black marker on like moustaches," Brooks said with a laugh.
Years later, when Brooks was touring with King in 1993, he confessed to the blues giant that he used to sneak into his shows without paying.
"B.B. laughed and said, 'I was young myself! All you had to do was bring a guitar and we would have let you in,' " Brooks recalled.
Brooks didn't start playing guitar until he was in his 20s, and his first big break came in 1957 when Clifton Chenier, the zydeco legend, hired him for his Red Hot Louisiana Band.
It was an easy fit, Brooks said, because "I heard zydeco 24/7. It was sunk in my head."
Then, while playing in Atlanta, he ran into another musical legend, singer Sam Cooke, who later became a star with such hits as "You Send Me" and "Havin' a Party." The two musicians quickly became friends and wrote a few songs together, and when Cooke headed north to live in Chicago he invited Brooks along.
"He treated me very nice. He was nicer even than what people say," Brooks said.
But once they got to the Windy City, Brooks found that the blues ruled and Chicagoans were not interested in hearing zydeco.
"They wasn't listening to the type of stuff I was doing. I wasn't in the right place. So what I did was, I just kind of changed my style," he said.
Brooks said he went to school listening to such players as Otis Rush and Magic Sam, as well as the bands of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.
"I went out every night and listened to other blues players for two years. I always loved the blues and I wanted it bad, man. I would just go back and I taught my own self. Once I could hear it all the time, and I wasn't hearing zydeco music and country, I could feel it. You can play the blues but you ain't going to move nobody unless you feel it."
Brooks' breakthrough as a solo artist came in 1978 with the album "Two Headed Man," and he was nominated for a Grammy in 1979 with the album, "Bayou Lightning."
Bill Reiser, a spokesman for the Monroe library system who helps organize the blues festival, said the library mission is "serving the educational, informational, and recreational needs of our community. I think the blues series hits all three of those marks."
He said planning goes on year-round and that the library can put on the shows with free admission thanks to Michigan arts grants and corporate sponsors.
"It's about inclusion," he said. "If we charged five bucks, well for a family of four that's real money. We don't want anybody who's interested in this to have to make a hard choice."
Contact David Yonke at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6154.