"Dennis was my teacher," Heidi Knochenhauer says of Dennis Brooks, the tireless advocate of Memphis music and blues who died from a heart attack last month at age 59.
Brooks was not a musician but carved a niche for himself through enthusiasm and hustle as a key figure in the Memphis blues scene. That scene will celebrate him Sunday, November 29th, with an afternoon and night concert at Neil's, the Midtown venue where Brooks promoted concerts most often in recent years.
The concert — dubbed the Dennis Brooks Life Celebration — was organized by Knochenhauer, a grant writer for the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival who calls Brooks her "blues wingman" for area festivals and blues events in recent years; former colleague Chuck Porter, who hosts the "Blues Today" program on WEVL-FM Friday mornings; and stalwart local blues musician Brad Webb.
Starting at 2 p.m. and running deep into the night, the concert will feature many key names in the local blues/roots community, among them: Webb, Blind Mississippi Morris, Billy Gibson, William Lee Ellis, Reba Russell, and Eric Hughes. There are also out-of-town musicians coming in to pay tribute, among them Alabama's Microwave Dave and Portland's John-Alex Mason.
"He was what I call a spoke in the wheel," Webb says. "It takes a lot of spokes to make that wheel go round. And Dennis was always there, from booking bands to being a friend to being a reporter/man on the scene. He would call me on Sunday nights, going, 'Man, I'm at Huey's and Microwave Dave's here, and there ain't but 11 heads at 9 p.m. Where's the support?'"
A founding member of the Beale Street Blues Society, Brooks played a role in the careers of regional blues notables such as Webb and Blind Mississippi Morris, Daniel "Slick" Ballinger, and Richard Johnston.
"He booked Morris and me on the first trip to Norway, before Robert Belfour, Bill Ellis, and Richard Johnston went," Webb says. "And Dennis never charged too much — 10 percent, which is about unheard of for an agent. Dennis was kind of an old-school type of guy who wasn't real fancy. Dennis was a friend to me. It wasn't a business association."
Many musicians shared a similar kinship with Brooks, something reflected in the large and still-growing lineup for this weekend's concert.
"There was never a question. It was y'all tell me when to be there and we'll play," Porter says. "Everybody thought the world of him."
"We're still getting calls from people who just found out he passed," Webb says.
"Musicians were always welcomed at his home when they came through," says Knochenhauer, who was most recently working with Brooks on the nonprofit Arkansas Music Preservation and Education initiative, modeled after the Mississippi Blues Trail markers. Brooks was a board member and "our main researcher," Knochenhauer says. "He knew everything. He was our encyclopedia. It's really a loss."
Sunday's celebration concert will be free — "Dennis wouldn't have had it any other way," Knochenhauer says — but donations will be accepted and a silent auction will be held to raise proceeds for Brooks' headstone as well as a potential music note on Beale Street, with a wide range of music-related items in the auction donated from the likes of photographer Dick Waterman and Alligator Records' Bruce Iglauer.
The tentative lineup for the concert:
2 p.m. - Bill Ellis, Tomi Lunsford, Sandy Carroll
3 p.m. - Bobby Lawson Band, David Daniels, Stan Street, Don Cook
4 p.m. - Wampus Cats, MT Leon, Elmo
5 p.m. - The Hitmen, Sterling Billingsly, John-Alex Mason
6 p.m. - Blind Mississippi Morris, Billy Lavender, Microwave Dave, Phil Durham
7 p.m. - Steve Selvidge, Richard Johnston, Billy Gibson
8 p.m. - Don McMinn, Davis Coen
9 p.m. - Reba Russell Band, Valerie June
9:50 p.m. - Eric Hughes Band
10:15 p.m. - Jam Session