Don Brooks, harmonica virtuoso and studio musician, was born in Dallas, Texas, on March 8, 1947. Brooks is perhaps best-known for playing harmonica with many high-profile artists, as well as influencing a number of other successful harmonica players.
Don Brooks started playing harmonica as a teenager after hearing an album by noted bluesman Sonny Terry. Throughout the early 1960s, Brooks played in several Dallas coffeehouses alongside such artists as Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Jerry Jeff Walker. Brooks’s immersion in the Dallas blues scene, along with his involvement with Dallas blues, country, and folk artists, made him a seminal figure in bridging the local blues and folk music communities.
Like many other Texas folk musicians of the 1960s, Brooks migrated to New York City to pursue a professional career. In 1967 he became part of the burgeoning Greenwich Village folk music scene, which included such artists as David Bromberg and John Hammond, Jr. Brooks quickly established a reputation as a talented harmonica player, and by the early 1970s, he was performing and recording with such prominent artists as Rita Coolidge, Tim Hardin, Harry Belafonte, Judy Collins, Don McLean, Garland Jeffries, and Yoko Ono.
In 1973 Brooks joined Texas-born country singer Waylon Jennings’s band. It was through his work with Jennings that Brooks helped define the sound of “outlaw” country music. Brooks also influenced younger harmonica players, including Mickey Raphael, who became a regular member of country superstar Willie Nelson’s band in 1973.
Don Brooks’s talents on the harmonica were not limited to country music. Noted for his tasteful simplicity and rich tone on the instrument, Brooks also perfected the art of “chucking,” a popping of the harmonica that produced a percussive sound, thus employing it as a rhythm instrument. In New York, he established himself as a leading studio player, performing and recording throughout the 1970s and 1980s with Cyndi Lauper, Carly Simon, Billy Joel, the Talking Heads, Ringo Starr, Tim Hardin, Diana Ross, Bette Midler, the Bee Gees, and Yoko Ono and the Plastic Ono Band. Brooks took his musical talents to Broadway, performing in Roger Miller’s Big River in 1985, as well as The Gospel at Colonus in 1988. Brooks also can be heard playing harmonica in Ken Burns’s 1990 PBS documentary, The Civil War.
Don Brooks died of leukemia on October 25, 2000, in New York City, at the age of fifty-three. He is survived by his wife Anne, a son, and two grandchildren.