Even his friend George Benson didn't realize how young Ronnie Laws was when success first came calling. Because he's was so closely identified with his brother, flutist Hubert Laws, Laws said people often think he's at least 10 years older than he is.
"I had dinner with George a month ago at the Cafe Under the Bridge in Brooklyn," the 42-year-old saxophonist said by phone earlier this week from his home in Calabasas. "We used to headline concerts together in the late '70s. He asked how old I was and he was shocked when I told him. He thought I was the same age as he (49) and my brother (53). A lot of people think I started out working solo in my 30s. But I was only 23."
Laws, who appears Sunday in a quintet at the Rhythm Cafe in Santa Ana, had paid plenty of dues even by that tender age. The fifth of eight children, he was playing saxophone by age 11, accompanying his sister, vocalist Eloise, on the Houston club circuit and, one night, backing Kenny Rogers, who was on the bill at one of her dates.
But even though it was his sister who gave him his first gigs, Laws credits his brother Hubert with pointing the way. "He pioneered this kind of a career; he was the first to leave home and succeed. And he provided a good example: 'Work hard like me and you can achieve the same thing.' He was always my mentor."
The elder Laws, who rose to prominence after a string of recordings on the CTI label in the '70s, was often a difficult taskmaster. "He could be very hard on me, but he wanted to make sure I did the right things. I can remember him yelling and screaming when he was giving me lessons. He was a real stickler for discipline and doing things the right way. Looking back, I thank him for that."
While still in his early teens, the younger Laws went to New York to visit his brother who was enrolled at the Juilliard School of Music. "I accompanied him to all his sessions. So there I was at age 11 or 12, being introduced to Quincy (Jones), (drummer) Grady Tate, (trombonist) J.J. Johnson and (bassist) Ray Brown. I just hung around like a fly on the wall. What a wonderful foundation it gave me. I learned what great musicianship was all about."
But when it came time for Laws to make his own move out of Houston, he headed in the opposite direction from what his brother had taken.
"I gave it a lot of thought and realized that if I went to New York, people would assume that I was following on my brother's coattails. I didn't want people to get the impression that, 'He's Hubert's brother, he gets all the privileges.' So I decided to move west to make a name for myself."
After settling in Los Angeles in 1971, the young saxophonist worked with South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela for more than a year. He also gigged with guitarist Kenny Burrell and bop pianist Walter Bishop Jr. and spent 18 months with funk-rock band Earth, Wind & Fire.
"Prior to joining them," Laws said, "I was very much into (John) Coltrane and Miles (Davis), so much so that I was being overwhelmed. I had mixed feelings going into Earth, Wind & Fire, but Maurice (White, EWF's leader, drummer and vocalist) gave me the freedom to express myself. The music was really a challenge, with enough flexibility to express myself. I learned a lot."
After leaving EWF, Laws in 1975 recorded "Pressure Sensitive," which became Blue Note Records' all-time largest-selling album. That was followed by a string of albums for Blue Note; selections from those works are available on a compilation "The Best of Ronnie Laws."
In the '80s, he recorded "Mirror Town" and "All Day Rhythm" for Columbia. Throughout his career, Laws has been criticized for playing "fusion," rather than following in his brother's footsteps.
"I understand why people thought I would take the same path as my brother. But when I had the opportunity to record my first album, I wanted to perform music that reflected my background. I grew up listening to a lot of different styles: gospel, R&B;, blues. But my love for jazz was more dominant because it was a bigger challenge to master.
"I learned early in my career to just be myself and not go along with the status quo. Hubert, Joe Sample and the others in Houston all encouraged me to do that. And thankfully, what I've done has been accepted, people have responded."
His new album "Deep Soul," his second for the Par label, was produced by fellow-Houstonian Wayne Henderson, the one-time Jazz Crusaders trombonist.
"I grew up listening to the Crusaders . . . watching them, taking note of what they were doing. They were setting the groundwork for me. My brother went to school with them and played with them when they were called the Modern Jazz Sextet. And I've maintained the friendship."
Laws said it was Henderson who came up with the title to "Blues In the Fifth Ward" on the new album. It's a typically funky outing that recalls the tough Houston neighborhood where both Henderson and Laws once played regularly. Another standout on the album is a rendition of the Isley Brothers' "Harvest For the World."
"Growing up in that era, I always had a lot of adoration for (the Isleys), and this was a good opportunity to cover one of their songs. And the lyric is appropriate for where my head is at socially; that there are people in the work force that really put out and do the job, but they come home with the least. (It) really speaks to the general condition of our society."
Laws says he sees this same principal at work today in the music industry. "From my perspective, my mentors--people like my brother and Joe Sample--are reaping rewards now, but in a broader sense, they aren't compensated adequately for the master artists they are. I don't like to put anyone down who's successful in business, particularly in the music industry, but there are people that get away with succeeding on their image rather than on their talent. And they seem to be rewarded more than the people who sacrifice and invest the time in becoming artists."
Laws himself is finding more and more rewards for what he does. In November, he played a Cologne, Germany, nightclub for 10 days, followed by a three-day stint at London's Jazz Cafe. In October, he worked Tokyo's Keystone Corner with old friend keyboardist Rodney Franklin. He's set to go back to Europe in February.
Meanwhile, "Deep Soul" entered the Billboard Contemporary Jazz chart last week at No. 23 and Laws expects it to do well.
"It goes back to the times that artists worked to live tracks, using live musicians instead of computers. Of course, I've used both in my career, but there's a certain energy captured playing live. I know I'm more expressive that way."
Ronnie Laws plays Sunday at 9 p.m. at the Rhythm Cafe, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd, Santa Ana. $15 to $17. (714) 556-2233.