Despite what its three-letter title might suggest in this internet age, BRB has nothing to do with instant messaging, let alone being right back to it. Ronnie Clark, known on the KCSB schedule as “Ronnie C,” produces a show only casually attached to the here and now. That first “B” stands for “blues,” and actually, so does the second. Drop the “R” for “rhythm” between them, and you get the radio recipe Clark has followed on the air for three years now: take blues, mix in some rhythm and blues, and broadcast.
For this deejay and his chosen music, there’s certainly no being right back. Clark never, ever takes breaks from blues or rhythm and blues. “I just love blues and R&B,” he emphasized to me several times as I sat in on his show one Sunday afternoon. “I could play it all day long. I could listen to it all day long.” One compelling reason to tune into free-form stations like KCSB is that you stand a good chance of hearing voices that put across genuine excitement about the music being played. (You can sometimes hear excitement on commercial radio, but don’t hold your breath for genuineness.) Clark embodies that excitement. When his show ends, it’s always clear he could’ve kept it going all day: “Every time one o’clock comes, I think, ‘There’s so much I didn’t get to!’”
Clark’s life as a music collector began early. His older brothers, both professional musicians, started bringing him into the studio even when his age was still single-digit. These hundreds of visits instilled in the young Clark a grasp of the long, complicated, and often utterly laborious process of music-making: “My brothers told me, ‘Hey, don’t think this is magic. It doesn’t happen overnight!’ I learned all about the hard work of writing, producing, recording, selling, marketing, and manufacturing.” But his many glimpses into the proverbial sausage factory didn’t put him off the sausage. If anything, they drove him even more to learn about and respect his favorite albums, which, in a nod to the hard, unglamorous work he knows went into them, he always calls “projects.”
Eager to share the wealth of the world of music, Clark’s harmonica- and piano-playing brothers started giving him an allowance just to buy records. At once, he began both collecting music and learning to make his own with a Latin percussion set, but only one of those passions could win his full attention. “I saw how much time my brothers had to spend practicing, hours and hours every day,” he said, “but I wanted to listen to the music! I couldn’t do that and also practice. So they said to me, ‘Ronnie, why don’t you become a deejay?’”
Become a deejay he did. His first such gig was in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, spinning the contemporary jazz of the day from artists like Grover Washington Jr. and the Crusaders. As long a break as it may have been between then and his current spot on KCSB, he never stopped thinking about the best ways to play the music he loves. Just as his listening time between shows is a form of playlist-crafting practice, Clark’s extended hiatus from deejaying allowed his signature sound to come together, consciously or unconsciously. In this time, he amassed 2,700 vinyl records, 350 R&B CDs, and 275 blues CDs, and inherited even more from his late brother.
It wasn’t until the mid-2000s, after moving to Ventura, that Clark found a way to put his collection to use for the public good — more specifically, the public groove. Someone happened to mention KCSB to him, and it wasn’t long before he was signed up for an orientation, ready to combine the rhythmic, bluesy power of his music library with that of KCSB’s music library. The wee-hours commute from Ventura to his first, 4 a.m. time slot would put any normal music-lover’s enthusiasm to a severe test, but Clark, whose enthusiasm remained unscathed, is clearly not a normal music-lover.
On what other station around here could someone like Clark transmute such a wide span of musical taste into listener enjoyment? He roams from the 1940s to the 2010s, alternating between the B and the R&B, freely mixing the Chi-lites with Robert Cray with Howard Johnson with Junior Wells with Little Feat. Asking how he does it prompted a disquisition on the genetics of the music: “If you mix blues, R&B, and gospel,” went one of his lines of reasoning, “you get soul. Aretha Franklin, Al Green—they’ve got that soul background. A lot of R&B singers today aren’t soul singers. They don’t have that church upbringing.”
Knowing where each of these subgenres stand in relation to one another is an important aspect of Clark’s gift, as is knowing which songs go best with which other songs. “I try to flow as best as I can,” he said. “I don’t play five tracks from the ‘50s, then five from the 2000s. I don’t like big jumps.” He illustrated this physically by slowly clapping his hands, never moving them too far apart: “I want my choices to be like this. One just flows into the other.” Using this method, he finds opportunities to highlight artists he considers overlooked, whether they’re former hitmakers like the Platters or relatives of more popular performers, like Taka Boom, sister of Chaka Khan. (“She’s not as good as Chaka, but she’s pretty good,” he announces.)
So far, the strategy has worked. “People call in and say, ‘I never heard a program like yours!’ It’s like it is down South, where you’ll find stations that play four or five genres, that just mix it up. It’s all good music to them.” It’s all good music to Clark, too, and it plays an absolutely necessary role in his life. “I still have all my Latin percussion in storage,” he said. “If I one day find I’ve done what I want to do here, if I have to leave KCSB, I’ll definitely start playing again, just for self-fulfillment. Just for me.”
And when he has to leave this mortal coil, as we all must? “My daughter’s also a music connoisseur. She’ll get my whole collection. I know she won’t sell it. She’ll play it.”
BRB airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KCSB, 91.9 FM.