Happy Happy Birthday Baby

The Blues Society Turns 30

by D.J. Palladino

Lonnie_Brooks.jpgOfficially it turns 30 this year, but
the facts are a little misleading. The Santa Barbara Blues Society,
now the oldest in the country, actually began a few years before
that. “In December 1972, a man by the name of John Breck started
putting on blues shows, even before we got started,” explained
society head honcho Laszlo Kiraly. “Doing shows at the old Bluebird
Café, he called it the Santa Barbara Blues Society up until it went
kaput.”

In 1976, Kiraly, a physician who had escaped from Iron
Curtain-insulated Hungary, and Greg Drust, then an
ethnomusicologist and KCSB disc jockey, decided to start booking
blues acts here again, first at Claire Rabe’s famed boomer hangout
Baudelaire’s, then Casa de la Raza and Victoria Hall Theater, and
now Warren Hall at the Earl Warren Showgrounds. “We got a hold of
Breck who had moved away and asked him if he minded us calling our
thing the Santa Barbara Blues Society, too. And he said, ‘No
problem.’” In the meantime, UCSB professor Douglas Daniel had been
researching a book about the seeming incongruousness of ritzy S.B.
breeding a home for roadhouse funkiness. “While researching it he
found John Breck. So we invited him to our little birthday party
and he’s going to be there,” said Kiraly proudly.

So is Drust, who moved away to the Midwest a decade ago to host
a polka show while presumably organizing his own massive cache of
interviews with blues performers. Breck and Drust will join the
society’s 400 members to celebrate its 30th anniversary party this
Saturday. But it’s unlikely anyone’s more excited to join the party
than Lonnie Brooks. “For one thing I’ll just be glad to get out of
the cold,” Brooks said from his Chicago home.

Brooks was discovered at a young age by Clifton Chenier and
played backup guitar on Jimmy Reed’s iconic tune, “Big Boss Man.”
But these days he’s not on the road so much as he was before. “Not
like in the 1980s when I was traveling 300 days a year,” he said.
But Brooks isn’t complaining. “I love the road, and the audiences
are a lot better nowadays. They come out now because they know who
I am. I guess it’s like a professional pool player or a sports
figure — you’re playing for a living. I always enjoy it. In fact,
sometimes I think I should take myself a little more
seriously.”

Brooks feels little real contrition, though. “Maybe a million
people play guitar better than me. But I know some tricks,” said
the musician who’s performed with Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, B.B.
King, and Albert Collins. He even had a happy association with
country star Roy Clark, who gave him a job on Hee Haw. “I
loved that show,” said Brooks, who promises his own show will be
just as entertaining.

“When I play, I might have a written-down list, but by the third
song I know where the crowd wants to go and I take them there.
Sometimes I get them all worked up and then I’ll cool them down,
and save the best for last,” he said. It’s something he tries to
frame philosophically. “I think I’m like a comedian on the guitar,”
he laughed.

The celebratory mood will be appropriate. Kiraly feels that
after 30 years, the society is finally being taken seriously.
They’ve raised money and gotten nice grants for their outreach to
the schools program. In other words, they’ve got respect. Now on
stable financial footing, Kiraly still puts in more than 40 hours a
week promoting and organizing. But the work it well worth it to
him, especially as this anniversary nears. “Never in our wildest
dreams did Greg and I think this thing would last 30 years,” he
said. “Isn’t this great?”

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