Blackburn – Brothers in This World

Left to right: Duane Blackburn, keyboard, Corey Blackburn, drums, Brooke Blackburn, guitar.
Left to right: Duane Blackburn, keyboard, Corey Blackburn, drums, Brooke Blackburn, guitar.

Bill King, music director of the Ted Woloshyn Show at Newstalk 1010 CFRB and artistic director of the Beaches International Jazz Festival, sat down with Brooke Blackburn of the Blackburn Brothers recently to talk about the band and its Toronto history.

Bill King: What a music history your family has in Toronto. Your dad …
Brooke Blackburn: Since 1955 playing in Toronto.

Bill: Where did your dad come from?
Brooke: He grew up in Toronto and started hanging with all of the players at that time. He started playing guitar and was a wild man so he used to do flip-flops and somersaults off the stage and was a real rock ’n’ roller. He had a chance at 15 to go down to Memphis and his father said no; wanted him to take a different path but he followed his own path anyway.

Bill: Bobby Dean – played Hammond B-3?
Brooke: I think it was an A-100 he played at one of his house gigs. He has an A-100 at home. We have the B-3 in the studio but he also has an A-100.

Bill: Quite a cabinet on that. Try and move it.
Brooke: We’ve done it many times.

Bill: Where’s the studio located?
Brooke: Lansdowne and Dupont – Toronto West Sound. That’s my brother Cory’s studio. A great studio. The B-3 is there – drum booth – set up with a nice piano. Dad recorded his record Dont Ask Dont Tell a year before we did ours. He’s 70 years old and that was the first CD he ever did – even had his first CD release party. He did a forty-five way back in the fifties – I think he was on the same label as Stompin’ Tom. He had a band, Bobby Dean & the Gems.

Bill: You must have hung around your dad’s turntable when you were kids?
Brooke: Hanging around the reel-to-reel tapes. Dad used to record all of his jams and bring them home and I’d listen to them. Dad used to have a matinee gig at the Zanzibar and musicians used to come by who were playing the Colonial Tavern or different places and sit in. He’s got boxes and boxes of taped jams in the garage.

Bill: How was it decided who would play what instrument – there are four brothers?
Brooke: I haven’t got a clue. We have one picture of just three of us waking up one Christmas morning and there was a drum set and a guitar. I was about 12 or13 when I started getting into guitar. My older brother Robert played guitar and saxophone – Duane just started messing around piano and Cory later on when he came around, then started playing drums – it came to him naturally.

Bill: The new album is called Brothers in This World – fill us in.
Brooke: We just mess around. My brother lays down a groove and we join in. Everybody always says we sound like the Neville Brothers. They put us in that category being brothers playing that funky bluesy kind of stuff. We went down to Memphis a few years back and did the IBC thing and people dug us and didn’t expect that sound coming from Canada. I was really touched by that. Still haven’t been to New Orleans which I really want to play. They just have a sound in that area – I don’t know if it’s the culture – they don’t mess with that sound other than color. It’s still that roots feel we got with this record. It’s what we do naturally. We were talking about the television show Treme and that’s the closet we’ve been to feeling what it’s like. We opened for Trombone Shorty last year. What a show. More aggressive than expected. My dad had the connection doing that Fats Domino thing back then – he was sitting at 300 pounds too.

Bill: Speaking of Treme – Clark Peters who played Albert “Big Chief” Lambreaux dropped in.
Brooke: He came into N’Awlin’s one night and was talking about doing a documentary on brothers – the Nevilles and interested in doing something about us too. I’m sending the album and see what he thinks and maybe we can do something in the future. I think he’s an actual bass player. I’ve been at N’Awlin’s three years and Jo Mama’s nine years – every Thursday. A house gig is where it’s at brother.

Bill: Who has a nine-year gig?
Brooke: Those cats at the Orbit Room have been there 15 years – LMT Connection. Even if you’re touring all over the world – come home and play. We don’t tour as much as we should. In the summer we do Quebec and Southern Ontario. We have yet to commit to going on the road for a couple months. Quebec and Ontario support music and it’s not too far a drive.

Bill: We met through singer Shakura S’Aida going back to 2001 when you two were playing Blues on Bellair.
Brooke: We were doing a trio; upright bass, guitar and vocal. The music gave us so much space to hear. I try to think like a piano player when doing a trio – harmony, melody, bass lines, soloing and vocals at the same time.

Bill: We don’t get to hold onto these fine singers long, do we? We had her a good five years with the Fish Fry.
Brooke: Everybody does their own thing.

Bill: She was dead-set on having her own career.
Brooke: That what she did. I just came back from Calgary with her. She’s got gigs – going one place to the next – working and working and working. She writes, she sings and takes care of the business aspect of it. She really cool.

Bill: There’s a difference between your singing and brother Duane. He makes me think of Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland – Lowell Folsum. What would you say is your vocal sound?
Brooke: Duane is such a natural vocalist – I work a little harder to try and get in the vein of my beautiful singing brother. I don’t know who I sing like.

Bill: You’ve got the growl.
Brooke: I growl! I growl because I’ve got to hit those notes, man. I push to hit those notes. I think we both have a little bit of our father when he gets going with that rock ‘n’ roll stuff he starts to growl. My older brother Robert has this almost falsetto voice. Back in the day when we were kids there was the band called DeBarge – he used to sing like El Debarge.

Bill: How different are your other brothers from you?
Brooke: We’re all different. I wrote a song on the previous album called Four Brothers that talks about that. Everyone has their strengths and is really communicative. We all have a bit of mom and dad and have their ways. I’m more the aggressive part of my dad, Robert is the thinker, Duane is the soulful-spiritual one, Cory is your go out in the woods, strong, build anything type. People always say we have that family dynamic – that special thing – but of course we’ve been playing together a long while. Brothers in This World.

Bill King is a freelance photojournalist.