Featured Interview – Lucky Peterson

lucky peterson photo 1Wait a minute! That can’t possibly be true! Lucky Peterson is still a relatively young at age 55. How in the world could he be celebrating his 50th anniversary as a professional musician?

As strange as that might seem, however, it’s a fact!

Born Judge Kenneth Peterson on Dec. 13, 1964, in Buffalo, N.Y., and the fourth member of his family with Judge as a given name, Lucky was making final preparations before leaving for Brazil to kick off a world tour to celebrate his milestone as a blues Golden Ager can when Blues Blast caught up with him.

One of four children born to guitarist and bar owner James Peterson, Lucky’s been blue from birth.

Deeply influenced by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and Jimmy Reed, James Peterson was a juke joint owner’s son and grew up singing gospel in rural Alabama. A talented musician in his own right, he taught himself how to play the six-string after leaving home for Gary, Ind., at age 14.

Possessing a gritty singing voice that reminded some folks of Wolf and others Freddie King, James relocated to western New York in 1955, working at Allied Chemical before running a used car lot by day and Governor’s Inn — a nightclub with the feel of a Southern juke – at night, opening it a few months after Lucky was born.

Peterson fronted Jesse James And The Outlaws and brought world-class talent into the club, which quickly became the go-to place for blues royalty from Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland to play in route to bigger shows along the East Coast.

Like his name implies, Lucky’s lived an unbelievably fortunate life since childhood. He was three years old and riding in his grandmother’s lap when the car they were riding in was rear-ended, sending him flying and landing without a scratch. He’s been Lucky ever since.

As a toddler, the future multi-instrumentalist was initially fascinated by the drums and the loud sounds they produced. He picked up a pair of sticks some time that same year and began mimicking the pros he’d seen working their magic on stage as he beat out a rhythm on the bar’s house kit, and he quickly became a novelty sitting in with the Outlaws and his dad during their sets.

As the thrill faded, Lucky picked up the bass for a while. But that only lasted a short time before he became bored. The ah-hah moment in his life came at age five when James booked organist Bill Doggett for a gig.

One of the most important organ players ever, Doggett was a Philadelphia native whose trademark instrumental, “Honky Tonk,” hit the top of Billboard’s 1956 R&B charts. Even more impressive, it spent two weeks in the No. 2 position in the broader Hot 100 listings.

“My dad said I always liked big stuff,” Lucky recalls today. “Big things always fascinated me. When I saw that organ, I just went crazy. I would just sit there in front of it and see what it was. I guess I did fall in love with the organ then.”

Later that night, as his parents slept, he crept downstairs to the bar to get a closer look – tripping the burglar alarm in the process and waking up the whole house.

James Peterson rushed to the showroom to discover his son seated at the piano bench and staring at the huge instrument in front of him.

Instead of getting angry, however, James immediately threw the switch to power up the B-3 and taught Lucky how to play the 1-4-5 blues progression by using a cigarette – the butt for the one, the white portion for the four – a piece of electrical tape to mark the five.

“It was a clever way of doin’ it,” Lucky says, “and it worked!”

lucky peterson photo 2A quick study, he only had to be shown one time before picking up the progressions naturally and altering them into a way they immediately made musical sense.

It was a jaw-dropping moment.

James instantaneously recognized Lucky’s talent, and – with Doggett leaving town the next morning — he recruited the best man he could think of to teach his son the ropes. It was Buffalo-area native Dr. Lonnie Smith.

Then only in his early 20s and a resident of Miami for decades, Smith frequently played at Governor’s Inn before becoming jazz superstar who worked extensively with Grover Washington Jr., Lou Donaldson and George Benson before launching a solo career in which the Jazz Journalist Association has honored him nine times as its organ keyboardist of the year.

“My father told him: ‘I think my son can play the organ,’” Lucky recalls, “and he went: ‘Yeah, right! Let me see…Show me!’

“I sat down and did somethin’ that caught his attention, and he said: ‘Yeah. Let me teach him’ — and it went from there.”

Peterson remains grateful.

“I thank my father, I thank God and I thank Dr. Lonnie Smith for bein’ there,” he says, “and doin’ what he did to get me started.”

When Lucky played behind Lightnin’ Hopkins and Jimmy Reed, they though the organ was rigged. Other blues legends – including Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Muddy Waters and Koko Taylor – appeared regularly at the Inn. But when Willie Dixon came in to gig, Lucky’s life changed forever.

A giant of a man both physically and musically as a bass player, songwriter and the man who coordinated many of the most important sessions for Chess Records in the golden age of Chicago blues in the 1950s. Dixon immediately recognized Lucky’s unique star potential.

After discussions with James, he brought the boy to Paragon Recording Studio in the Windy City, where they recorded Our Future: 5 Year Old Lucky Peterson, an album released on both sides of the Atlantic on the Today/Perception label.

Written by his father and based on the James Brown number, “Please Please Please,” the “1, 2, 3, 4” was released as a single backed by Dixon’s “Good Old Candy.” It became a hit. The joke at the time was that Lucky had to stop at four because he couldn’t count to five.

Almost immediately, Lucky was making appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, Ed Sullivan and Soul Train as well as Sesame Street and the TV game show What’s My Line?

Lucky quickly became the regular keyboard player in his father’s band. Three years later, they returned to Today/Perception to record The Father, The Son, The Blues. It was James’ first appearance on vinyl in a career that included releases on Ichiban, Waldoxy/Malaco and King Snake before his death at age 63 following a heart attack in 2010.

Young Peterson started playing guitar at age eight or nine, once again showing early that he had prodigious skills. But he was on stage one night when James snatched the instrument from his hands. He was so upset about the way Lucky was playing, he told him never to pick up a guitar again.

Fortunately for blues lovers, however, Lucky didn’t listen. He began practicing his chops when his father was out of the house by playing B.B. King and Little Milton records, slowing down the 45s to 331/3 to learn the guitar parts note-for-note. He picked up French horn when attending Buffalo Academy For Visual And Performing Arts, played in the school symphony and sang in the choir – but never learned how to read music, doing everything by ear.

lucky peterson photo 3The Peterson family lived in transition for several years after James finally tired of the brutal Buffalo winters, moving first to St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1975, where James opened Club 31, then back to New York three years later, where he relaunched Governor’s Inn. The family finally settled in Tampa in the early ‘80s, where James operated the After Dark Club.

That’s where Lucky was living when Little Milton hired him as his keyboard player. He was fresh out of school and only 17 years old, but it didn’t take long for him to make his mark. Within seven months, young Peterson was promoted to bandleader and opening shows with 45-minute sets of his own.

“Little Milton was like a father to me,” Lucky recalls. “Little Milton and my father were like really good friends. When he passed through Buffalo, he played the club. I met him back then, but really didn’t meet him until we moved to Florida.

“He was supposed to play a couple of nights – one in Orlando and another in Tampa. But his band got stuck in Memphis in a snowstorm. So Milton called my father and said: ‘Didn’t you tell me your son could play?’”

Lucky imitated Milton’s voice as he spoke, and did the same when he delivered James’ gravelly response: “Yeah, my son’s bad. He’s a bad muthafuckah!’

“’But can he play the blues?’

“’Where do ya think he come from?’ my father asked. ‘Who do you think he learned from?’

“We went and did the first job in Orlando,” Lucky says, “and he was impressed. That was Friday. On Saturday, the band showed up in Tampa – with everybody but the keyboard player. He said: ‘I need a keyboard player. Do you wanna do it again?’

“I said: ‘No problem. Let’s do it! How much money am I gettin’?’

“He told me: ‘A hundred and 40 dollars’ or somethin’. I said: ‘Yeah! Let’s do that!’ — that was BIG money for me. I played, and I got a standin’ ovation. After I finished, he axed me: ‘Do you wanna go on the road?’”

Lucky accepted, but before Milton left, he insisted on talking to Peterson’s parents.

“My mama was very happy,” Lucky says, “because I was startin’ to get into trouble, hangin’ out with the wrong crowd. And my daddy, he got pissed. He said (to me): ‘Na-a-ah. You watch Little Milton ‘cause he’s rotten as hell.’

“He called Milton, they argued – and then they ate fish together and drank Hennessy.”

And James eventually gave his blessing.

Today, Peterson credits Milton with schooling him in guitar off stage as well as teaching him how to run a band from the inside out. It didn’t take long for him to realize that his boss ran an extremely tight ship, controlling every detail of his band’s time with him – everything from their appearance and conduct to much, much more.

He was such a control freak, Lucky says, that, behind his back, he and his bandmates called him “the Hitler of the blues.”

But there was a lot of levity, too – especially when it came to the way Milton dressed.

“We used to talk about his shoes,” Lucky says. “Whatever shoes he had on, his suit always was the same color. Then he dressed us all up in those big tuxedos and big bowties. I thought I was clean.

“He had glass heels, too. We used to tell him: ‘Why don’t you click your heels and go back to Kansas?’ We used to always pull jokes on each other, and we always used to mess with him.”

Peterson spent the better part of the next six years in Milton’s employ. They parted ways after robbers broke into the band’s van and stole their equipment – Lucky’s organ included. Peterson needed a replacement, and Milton refused to buy something of equal quality, opting instead for a much less expensive instrument.

“He was cheap, too, besides everything else,” Peterson says. “He could have bought me any kind of keyboard, but he didn’t.”

Sensing a revolution, Milton quickly called a band meeting.

lucky peterson photo 4“I wouldn’t go,” Lucky remembers. “I told him: ‘Man, I’d rather be up in the trees with the monkeys eatin’ peanuts than to be at one of your meetin’s.’

“So I left.”

Decades later, however, Peterson doesn’t hesitate when he says that, if he could go back and work with anyone again, it would be Little Milton because of the way he ran the show.

“But he was fun,” Peterson insists, “very fun! I miss that.”

Lucky soon joined Bobby “Blue” Bland as a featured soloist after learning about the opening from Eugene Carrier, B.B. King’s longtime keyboard player. He and Bland had a relationship that survived for five years – an amazing lengthy of time considering the rocky way it started.

“When I got to Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, I lied,” Peterson says. “When I was auditioning, it was me, Albert King’s keyboard player and Al Green’s keyboard player.”

The competition was conducted using Lucky’s organ.

“They asked: ‘Who’s first?’ and both of the other guys pointed at me,” Peterson says. “I said to myself: ‘Ma-a-an, you’re really fuckin’ up ‘cause y’all won’t get a chance to play.’

“When I got up there, I had on a Little Milton jacket, and Bobby Bland say: ‘Son, that’s the wrong jacket you got on.’ I said: ‘The jacket ain’t for playin’ the keyboard. It ain’t the jacket you’re hirin’.’

“Then I said: ‘Y’all know my daddy!’

“’Who’s your daddy?’

“’My daddy’s name Oscar,’” Lucky fibbed, calling out the name of the Canadian-born jazz pianist Duke Ellington tabbed as “The Maharajah Of The Keyboard.”

As soon as Peterson spoke the words, the attitude changed dramatically with a feeling of excitement filling the room. “What do you wanna play first?” they asked.

“Give me a jazz swing,” Lucky answered.

“Key of F,” came the reply.

“’Gimme another key – anything you want to do,’ I told ‘em. When they kicked it off, I was in the same key they was in,” Peterson remembers. “I had perfect pitch, so I didn’t have a problem knowin’ where they were.

“When I started playin’, I was lookin’ at the other two keyboard players, and they was lookin’ at each other like: ‘Ma-a-an, this is some b.s.!’

lucky peterson photo 5“When I finished, they told me I got the job. They didn’t want to even hear the other keyboard players. Me and Albert King’s keyboard player, we became real good friends. But the keyboard player from Al Green was kinda pissed!

“He was a dog breeder – Dobermans. He was like: ‘Hey, man, I’ll drop you off at the hotel.’ I’m like: ‘Okay.’

“‘Do you smoke weed?’ I said: ‘Yeah.’ So we done smoked a joint. I got in the car, and he said: ‘C’mon over to the house.’

“I get in there and he’s got a house full of Dobermans, and the first thing he says was: ‘Don’t make no sudden moves.’ I was in there about 30 minutes with the mama and daddy and all those Dobermans.

“Aww hell!

“I was still. I did not blink an eye.”

Peterson didn’t reveal the truth about his identity until Bland’s Memphis-based band arrived in Philadelphia for their first gig.

“In the dressing room,” he remembers, “I told ‘em: ‘Hey, y’all, I got a confession to make: My daddy’s name’s James. My daddy’s not Oscar Peterson. It’s James Peterson.’

“They busted out laughin’, sayin’: ‘Man, you’re a good liar!’”

The night didn’t end well, however. Bland had a standing rule that he had to be paid all of his money up front. He cancelled the show at the last minute after the promoter failed to live up to his end of the deal, a move that left a bad taste in the band’s mouth because no one was getting paid.

The hard feelings spread quickly.

“The band quit,” Lucky recalls. “They all looked at me and said: ‘Whatcha all gonna do? Are you with the band or are you not?’

“’Ma-a-an, shit!’ I said. ‘I guess I’m with the band.’

“Everybody quit Bobby Bland on the way home to Memphis. We all went to Dallas, Texas, and formed the group called Out Of Control.

“We were very out of control.

“We all went back to Bland, though. We stayed off for a good month, and we all got broke real fast. I was already broke,” he laughs. “Everybody came back, and we had no more problems.”

Peterson has called the Lone Star State home since first moving to the Big D in 1988. He’s worked with a virtual who’s who of recording artists since then – including Etta James, Big Daddy Kinsey, Raful Neal, Junior Wells, Joe Louis Walker, Jimmy Johnson, Carey Bell and John Lee Hooker. He’s been fronting his own bands since the early ‘90s, releasing in excess of 30 albums in the process.

His first release as an adult was Ridin’. Issued on the French imprint Isabel in 1984, it featured contributions from two other rising talents from Chicago: guitarist Melvin Taylor and “Killer” Ray Allison, for years the percussionist behind Buddy Guy and Junior Wells before stepping out in front of the kit to become a bandleader as a guitarist and vocalist.

When Lucky finally left Bland, he wanted to launch a career as a Top 40 artist — a decision he arrived at after working on Kenny Neal’s first recording on King Snake Records, a label operated by Bob Greenlee out of Sanford, Fla., where Kenny, his father Raful – the undisputed Sonny Boy Williamson of Louisiana blues – and their extended family were living after relocating from Baton Rouge.

One of the most important independent labels at the time, King Snake released the disc as Bio On The Bayou. It became Neal’s breakout when Alligator picked it up and subsequently retitled it as Big News From Baton Rouge.

“I hooked up with Bob through Kenny,” Lucky says. “The record I wanted to do wasn’t a blues record. It was R&B. Bob said: ‘Yeah, that sounds good… But do me a favor: Let’s do some blues in there.’ King Snake Records was a great label.”

One of the most important independents in the era, its roster included established stars and rising stars-to-be, including Rev. Billy C. Wirtz, Noble “Thin Man” Watts, Sonny Rhodes, Roy Roberts, Eric Culberson, Bill Wharton, Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone, Lazy Lester and both Kenny and Raful Neal.

Greenlee eventually recorded two albums for Peterson — Lucky Strikes! and Triple Play, both of which were released by Alligator, the start of a career that’s included five albums of his own and another with Mavis Staples dedicated to the memory of gospel legend Mahalia Jackson on Gitanes/Verve and other works on Blue Thumb, Dreyfus, Green Swamp, Blues Boulevard, Emarcy/Universal, Blackbird and Jazz Village as well as an extended run on Britain’s JSP imprint.

Lucky and wife Tamara, an artist in her own right, have shared credit on three discs and she regularly tours the world with him. After early recordings with him as Peterson, she’s built a career in Southern soul/R&B under the name Tamara Tramell, her middle name.

Peterson’s band, The Organization, has been together for most of the 2010s and includes Shawn Kellerman on guitar, Tim Waites on bass, Raul Valdez on bass and Rachid Guissous on keys. 2018 was a whirlwind year for them with their “The Blues Are Back” tour, hitting major festivals across the U.S. then France, Germany, Bosnia And Herzegovina and in addition to crisscrossing North America.

The balance of 2019 should be just as busy as Lucky spreads the joy of having spent – and survived — 50 years in the blues. Currently in South America, but spending the next two months in Europe, he’ll be returning to the States about the same time his new, special anniversary album hits store shelves in September.

Like most of the discs Peterson’s issued in the past couple of decades, it’s produced by Steve Washington, He’s the son of legendary songwriter Ferdinand “Fats” Washington – author of Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love,” The Flamingos’ “I’ll Be Home” and Lowell Fulson’s “Strange Feeling.” Best man at Lucky and Tamara’s wedding, he’s been working with Peterson since his first JSP release.

“I ain’t done yet,” Lucky insists. “It’s truly gonna be a 50th anniversary record because I’m coverin’ a lot of stuff. I’m doin’ a tribute to the Kings – an Albert King song, a Freddie King song and a B.B. King song. I’m goin’ from the rootie to the tootie! I’m doin’ some rap, some blues, some R&B — but everything I’m doin’ has got the touch of blues. I went downhome, too, with some nice rock-‘n’-roll.”

After five decades, Lucky wants everyone to know: “You better come out and see me – I’m alive and I ain’t done yet!”

Check out his music and find out where he’s appearing next by visiting his website: www.luckypeterson.com.

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