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Interview with a Bluesman

Written by Ethan Millman Category: Music
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Big Pete Pearson has long been known as Arizona’s King of the Blues, but these days, he says his kingdom is dwindling.

The coffee shop just down the street from the rodeo bar in Cave Creek feels like an unlikely spot for a legendary bluesman to be holding court. Janey’s Coffee Co. & Bodega, with its western décor and saloon-like feel, looks nothing like the juke joints of the Mississippi Delta or the famed blues bars of Chicago.

That hardly matters to Big Pete Pearson. About once a month, he sits on a barstool on Janey’s dusty concrete courtyard outside, cacti in the background, and shouts his songs for a mostly white, mostly affluent audience dressed in white polo shirts and casual athleisure attire.

Big Pete Pearson singing n the 1980s; Photo courtesy of Bob Corritore
Big Pete Pearson singing n the 1980s; Photo courtesy of Bob Corritore

Pearson is 82. He’s about six feet tall, but he holds himself up like a much taller man, even with the slight hunch he carries with him in his older age.

Away from the mic, he is quiet and his voice is gentle, holding none of the anguished aggression it shows when he is on stage. He has a serious, almost callous look about him, making for an intimidating first impression.

A closer look reveals another side of him. His eyes, a placid whitish blue, bright and warm, are immediately noticeable and quickly disarming.

In his heyday in Texas, Pearson jammed with the likes of B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and Etta James. Those days are gone, but he’s still at it, playing cafés in Arizona, prepping about his next European tour, where he says he’s a “household name.” Still, he’s not immune to the ravages of age – he has tough days, and on those days, he wants to slow down.

Pearson has the credentials to affirm his significance in Arizona’s music canon. He’s in the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame and has recorded most of his catalogue at Tempe Studios here in the Valley. One of his albums won best blues record at the Independent Music Awards in 2007.

These days, he has his steady gig at Janey’s along with recent performances at Phoenix’s Listening Room and the Phoenix Botanical Garden. If you ask him, he’ll say he is all that is keeping the blues alive in Arizona, the sole survivor of a musical scene that has diminished to almost nothing in recent years.

“Man,” he growls, followed by a light chuckle, “there’s no fuckin’ Arizona blues scene.”

***

Today, Pearson lives in a quaint and typical beige-colored home in Litchfield Park with his wife, Kelly. They’ve been married for over a decade.

There’s very little indication that this is the home of a bluesman. There are no guitars lying around the house, no Robert Johnson vinyl playing on a record player and no ashtrays filled to the brim with cigarettes. There are, however, a few photos of him with B.B. King hanging in his bedroom, a piano he seldom plays in his office and a colorful blue-and-purple painting of him singing on stage.

How Pearson got to singing the blues over 70 years ago is far from conventional. For starters, he was born in Jamaica, where reggae reigns supreme. Only days after his birth, his parents would travel to the United States and abandon him just outside of Austin on his maternal grandparents’ porch in an apple box. According to Pearson, his father had given his mother an ultimatum, telling her after he was born that it was either Pete or him, as the man was unsure if Pete was his biological son.

He wouldn’t meet his mother and father until he was a teenager. But he wasn’t angry at them, he said. To him, his biological parents were “just some people I hadn’t met. It didn’t matter.”

His grandparents were angry, though, and also disappointed. Still, they taught him to never resent his parents. “My grandparents raised me and taught me well. I had a good home and was well taken care of. I lived the way I was told to live.”

Pearson would start listening to the blues as a young child.

When he was 7 years old, he’d take his grandfather’s battery-powered radio into his room every night and tune into the blues until he’d fall asleep or the radio would run out of power. “Every chance I got, I’d take that radio and listen to the music,” he says. “That’s how I learned to sing the blues.”

He was hooked. “I didn’t know I was looking for it, but it just hit me in the face,” he says. “The music, those feelings, I knew I found something.”

He played his first show about two years later, at a now long-gone bar in Austin. He was 9 years old. He had never been to a bar before and he had never performed in public.

He was recruited by a local band of musicians in search of a front man; they had heard that Pearson taught himself to sing and play guitar. Pearson came from a religious household, where playing the raunchy blues scene was prohibited. His parents assumed that he’d be singing spirituals, though, so they gave him their blessing.

He recalled the band members telling him, “It’s alright. We won’t tell no one.’” And off he went.

He says his shows got longer, the tip jars got fuller and the crowds got bigger, so he started touring with his own band all around Texas. He got so good that when Muddy Waters, Ray Charles and Buddy Guy came through the state, they wanted Big Pete Pearson to play with them.

It was actually B.B. King who referred Pearson to Blues Boy Hubbard and the Jets, the band that Pearson fronted for much of his twenties. By then, he was regularly playing sold-out shows at college bars at the University of Texas.

Like so many other bluesmen, the social and racist constructs that created the blues impacted Pearson throughout his life. Growing up during segregation and the Jim Crow era, Pearson says he was at first too young to realize the racial injustice he grew up with, but when he did, it was unavoidable. “I knew what you might call the rules of the south,” Pearson says. “It was ‘You can’t use that bathroom.’ ‘You can’t drink out of that glass.”

The college bar scene was refreshing he said, as it served as a venue for black and white bargoers to listen together without the racial divide that was so present in the outside world. “I can close my eyes still and see this crowd,” Pearson says, a smile on his face. “You couldn’t move, there’d be so many people.”

***

Pearson had traveled back and forth to Arizona for years for jobs while still living in Texas in the ‘50s – he’d work the fields or load trucks during the day, and he’d sing country music with a band called The Wet Stones at night.

Pearson officially left Texas and moved to Arizona for good in the late 1950s, when he helped his brother-in-law move to Phoenix from Texas and never looked back. Pearson and his first wife, Bobby, made the move with their two young daughters and step son, and would have two more daughters born in Arizona.

It hasn’t always been easy living in Arizona, one of the last states to adopt Martin Luther King Day as a holiday. While Arizona was further west, Pearson says he still felt constant racial tension, and whether he wanted to or not, he played his blues for white audiences to pay the bills. “Back then, playing these shows was about survival,” he says. “We didn’t have much of a choice. How were we going to put food on the table and feed a family?

“Back in the ‘70s up in Scottsdale, there were many times where I’d be with my wife and I wouldn’t get served in restaurants. Or I’d get coffee with a band and they wouldn’t give me any coffee.”

Meanwhile, Pearson’s personal life experienced ups and downs. Pearson and Bobby were together for about a decade in Phoenix before divorcing, followed by another failed marriage for Pearson that concluded in the 1980s. A long stretch of bachelorhood followed before Pearson met Kelly, a Valley music teacher who invited the bluesman to lecture her class on the history of black music in American. Kelly, a white woman 33 years Pearson’s junior, is now both his wife and manager.

While racial issues have improved in Arizona, Pearson says, in some ways there’s still been little change, adding that he’ll still get dirty looks when he’s at the super market with Kelly.

“I think people like to think things have changed,” Pearson says. “And in some ways, it has. Businesses are more welcoming now. But that’s because they want the money. This isn’t like the ‘70s anymore, but it’s not as different as you’d think.

“Some places in Arizona it’s just like it was yesteryear, I don’t let that bother me,” he continues. “You have to realize who you are and what you are. Names don’t hurt me. It takes a lot to learn that and a lot to realize that.”

Racial frictions aside, Pearson successfully staked out a place for himself within Phoenix’s blues scene, recording multiple albums and becoming a regular performer in the Valley’s most prominent blues bars – now-defunct haunts like Century Sky Room or the Elk’s Lodge, or later in his career, Char’s has the Blues and The Rhythm Room.

While the blues scene was thriving when he arrived here, it’s since shrunk, Pearson says, adding that blues acts in Arizona are dwindling.

“There are a few bands here that consider themselves blues bands,” Pearson says. “But you listen to the blues, and then you listen to these people standing there calling themselves blues musicians, and you find that their version of the music is completely different than what’s really happening.”

Their version of the music, he says, is completely different than his pure blues sound, which is backed not just by instrumentation and theory, but by experience and feeling. Pearson’s music is a marriage of Chicago and Austin-style blues, with a tinge of big-band swing mixed in, too. His music is driven by lightly distorted guitars, booming saxophones and old-time boogie piano trills.

His voice is higher pitched than Muddy Waters’, less raspy than Howlin’ Wolf’s and not quite as smooth as Buddy Guy’s. His vocal delivery has a subtly scratchy quality that makes it distinctive and memorable, and it hasn’t changed much with age.

Blues was more or less invented by African-American sharecroppers who sang it while picking cotton and vegetables on Southern plantations fields. It has many styles, from the Depression-era Delta Blues, riddled with acoustic slide guitars and deeply melancholy lyrics, to the more ubiquitous 12-bar Chicago electric blues, riddled with harmonica and distorted guitars. There’s even British blues, a hybrid pioneered by white performers like Eric Clapton and Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac.

The genre went mainstream after popular acts like Elvis Presley and, later, Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers Band gave it a rock ‘n’ roll edge. But that’s not the stuff that Pearson plays.

Not everyone in the Valley music scene agrees with Pearson’s grim assessment of the blues here. Bob Corritore, the longtime owner of The Rhythm Room, perhaps the best-known blues bar in Arizona, says it is not fair to say the blues is dying since it has never been a mainstream kind of music to begin with. Corritore says, rather, that the blues has maintained its smaller, more cult following for years.

In Arizona, where the popular music scene has more influence from south of the border, in the rich horn-and-drum sounds coming from Mexico, the blues has found a niche audience among hard-core enthusiasts. “The Blues scene in Phoenix deals with the same things that the blues scene any other place does,” Corritore says. “Some of the elders are not as active or they’ve passed on, and the younger people are left to be the representatives of this music.”

Still, he says, “I don’t think this generation is embracing this music the way the baby boomers once did.”

For Barbara Newman, president of the Blues Foundation, which oversees the national Blues Hall of Fame, the narrative that has been set in the past 20 years about the death of the blues isn’t accurate. Despite the foundation’s mortuary-esque “Keeping the Blues Alive” award, given out each year to a musician or music executive who has made significant contributions to the genre, “the music is getting more popular than it’s ever been,” she says. “It’s just changing.”

Pearson doesn’t see it that way.

“I don’t know where they say it’s (popular),” he says. “But that ain’t here.”

***

Despite his pessimistic view on the blues’ presence in Phoenix, Pete still goes out to hear the music. One Monday, he drives to Char’s Has the Blues on 7th Street, in Phoenix. The joint is lit up by red lights and the seats are mostly occupied by black people. It’s a very different scene and atmosphere than the one he sings to at Janey’s.

There’s a picture of Pearson on the wall.

It takes little time for patrons and performers to recognize Pearson as he walks in. But once they do, they approach and greet him with warm hugs and handshakes. With his friends at the bar, Pete reminisces shows and teases news material as well as a potential festival. “This man has some knowledge,” says Pearson’s former guitarist Kenny Brown, who was playing that evening. “As far as music goes, there’s a lot for him to teach us.”

Clad in a black bowler hat and a slightly worn-in black leather jacket, Pearson watches the first band, Bam Bam, intently – he’d come specifically to hear them play.

Pearson looks on with an ear-to-ear grin as he sways to the rhythm. “This is it,” Pearson says, nodding in approval while pointing at the stage.

Halfway through the set, the band invites Pearson to join them. Together, they play an impromptu cover of the blues standard “Further on Up the Road.”

“Alright, alright, we’ve got a celebrity here tonight,” Brown says before starting the band’s next song. “Big Pete Pearson is in the house.”

His performance is met with shouts and autograph requests. The audience applauds. Pete is unfazed. Here, at this small but storied blues bar, the king is home.

Pearson knows he’s nearing the end of his life. He’s reminded of it through the deaths of his contemporaries and his own blues idols, most recently the West Coast blues legend Otis Rush, with whom Pearson toured many years ago.

His band plays a couple warm-up songs before he starts each set, and Pearson no longer struts and dances around as he used to do as a younger man. On stage, while he can stand, he’ll often sit on a stool. But he’s still the same old jokester. He likes to tease drummer Brian Fahey about tempo between songs and he still lets out an excited yelp to his guitarist as he breaks into a solo.

Until his time comes, he will keep on performing.

“Turning 81, 82, my time is pretty much spent. I’m gonna keep singing, though,” Pearson says. “Whether that’s till 138, 140 years old, I don’t care. I’ll just keep singing the blues.”