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Dan Aykroyd: I'm on a 'Mission From God' to Promote the Blues

By DNAinfo Staff | December 23, 2013 8:02am | Updated on December 24, 2013 12:18am
 Lonnie Brooks celebrated his 80th birthday during a concert at the House of Blues on Saturday.
Lonnie Brooks
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DOWNTOWN — Dan Aykroyd said he came to Chicago to honor "a beloved figure in American blues," Chicago's Lonnie Brooks.

But by the end of a celebration Saturday night at the House of Blues, a legion of blues greats had taken the stage and an audience of 600 had also wished the blues legend a happy 80th birthday.

The lineup included Shemekia Copeland, Donald Kinsey, Otis Taylor, Billy Branch, Jellybean Johnson, Otis Clay,  Jimmy Vivino, Big Head Todd, Cicero Blake, Lil Ed and Eddy Clearwater.

And Brooks' sons, Wayne and Ronnie Baker Brooks, paid tribute to the man, who as Ronnie said "taught me everything I know, but not everything he knows."

Others who sent tributes included Keith Richards, via videostream, as well as Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Gov. Pat Quinn. While the mayor's message elicited some jeers, Aykroyd said, "He loves the city. He loves Lonnie, more importantly."

The Brooks family paused the show to honor Eric "Guitar" Davis, who was slain last week in South Shore.

In an interview with DNAinfo Chicago before the show, Aykroyd said that the tribute was one of a kind and unlikely to be repeated anytime soon. 

"I don't think you are going to see something like this in Chicago in a long time," he said.

In addition to discussing Brooks and his influence on the blues, Aykroyd also talked about the future of the blues and the next generation of artists; his "mission from God" to promote the genre; and the future of the club he founded, the House of Blues.

He also talked about the city he calls his "second home" and reminisced about his days here performing for Second City and while filming "The Blues Brothers."

Aykroyd drove up to Chicago from Mississippi, where he is filming "Get On Up," a biopic of James Brown. He now heads to his native Canada for the holidays.

DNAinfo Chicago: This is quite a fitting tribute for Lonnie.

Dan Aykroyd: He is one of the last sort of living, working links to the Chicago blues tradition, started in the late '50s with Chess records and with Checkerboard Lounge. … You got to recognize a guy like that for his dedication and his artistry and really for his just hanging in there for so long. And keeping his career alive. ... He is extremely worthy of a tribute like this, and everybody is coming out because they love him. He is a beloved figure in American blues.

When is the first time you heard his music or met him? You’ve known him for a long time.

I used to see him on B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted, Kingston Mines. I saw him when I was back in Chicago for the filming of "The Blues Brothers." We put him in the second movie. He was great. ...  He’s consistently a great entertainer, full of everything you want in a great blues show. Great technical ability and charisma and just all of that. He’s got it all. There aren’t that many left. Guitar Shorty still doing shows, James Cotton still doing it, Buddy Guy, and then Lonnie. There is three or four others I can think of from that generation. ...

Lonnie is not only an amazing showman himself, but he’s passed on the craft to [sons] Ronnie and Wayne.

It's tough to join a family business. ... It's just a tribute to how much these guys appreciate what their father did and does for a living that they would want to go into it themselves. Oftentimes young people will flee from the family business and won't want anything to do with how they’ve been brought up. … It’s a tribute to really how he was able to unite their interest in blues and keep that family affection alive.

A lot of young musicians are picking other genres, rap and hip-hop to go into. How is he helping keep blues alive?

He must have done it in a really generous, gentle and insightful way to get his sons to be committed professionals today.  … You can't make someone, you can't compel someone to play the music. You cant compel someone to take up a profession.

What's exciting about it is [his sons] are marching in ... this incredible second-generation movement. Shemekia Copeland. Bernard Allison. ["Big Bill"] Morganfield. ... Johnnie Taylor's daughter Tasha. ... They are going to have kids, and they are going to be hopefully passing it on… 

What is really neat when you see the roots going down for the artist like Shemekia Copeland. ... That root is living and its there.

So you think the second generation is putting blues back on an upswing?

[It's tough]. Radio doesn’t play it so much. ... The Blues Mobile radio show that I host has been on the air for 22 years. We are in almost 200 stations syndicated across the country. ... We are totally dedicated to the mission, and the mission from God is to sell tickets for the artists, to sell their records for the artists, to sell their reputations so you have a forum to talk about their music and to get audiences interested and drive them forward. We get the satisfaction of helping people to celebrate their careers. Radio needs to service blues a little more.

[Chicago has] live blues clubs, [but] it’s a challenge to get 1,500 people in the room to do a blues show. ... I don't know about New Orleans, but New York has nothing. I don’t think there is one club where you can see a blues act.

... Blues owners have a presence online. People should search it out and buy the records.

That is what my mission is all about, with House of Blues and Blues Mobile radio hour, is to keep the blues alive.

You founded House of Blues but sold it to Live Nation in 2006. What is your role with House of Blues since it sold?

When we started House of Blues [in Massachusetts], we wanted to celebrate African-American culture and also the legacy of Jake and Elwood [the characters Aykroyd and John Belushi played in "The Blues Brothers"].

We built Chicago, the blues palace, the opera house, New Orleans and other clubs. ... Then the crash of 2000 happened. ... Others went bankrupt. We didn’t. We held on. We got almost 3,000 employees. ... So we sold the company to Live Nation [in 2006] for a break-even price. ...

I was able to stay on as a consultant. I help them with concerts. I provide publicity and serve as the mouthpiece and cheerleader. They consult me on major strategic decisions. 

We just have to get more blues artists playing in the clubs. We had Buddy Guy and B.B. King. That is the kind of thinking we have to do. Get two to three artists. We have to stimulate the audiences.

How often do you get to Chicago?

Couple of times a year, at least. I love it here. It's America’s architectural masterpiece. You can actually go hear live blues music. The cuisine, of course, is always great. People are your classic Chicago open confident master Midwesterners. ...

We have our beloved sports teams. The Hawks and the Cubbies. Coming back here reminds me of my summer of 1974 when we had Second City from Chicago change places with our company in Toronto ... and also shooting the first "Blues Brothers" movie.

I reminisce about that when I come back here. Just walking [Friday] past some of the locations we shot at. It really brings back memories. I got my working papers here. I'm Canadian, I got my first visa to work here in Chicago. It's my second home.

You walked by where?

I was down on Lower Wacker walking along there. Down near the Billy Goat and near the tavern and all that. … I walked by and had a nostalgic moment.

Billy Goat is also turning into a little empire like House of Blues. They just opened another one nearby and have a few around the city.

That’s great. I remember [Bill] Murray and Johnny [Belushi] slinging those burgers.

What was your reaction to the murder of Eric "Guitar" Davis, son of Bobby "Top Hat" Davis?

It's just terrible. The police are doing all they can. In a country where everybody has a weapon, a pistol. There is no controlling that. People will do bad things.