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By Monica Alonzo
One of the first times I saw Big Pete Pearson and the Blues Sevilles was at Char's Has the Blues, the club on North Seventh Avenue. I was chasing shots of Jack Daniel's with ice-cold Rolling Rocks.
At one point during the performance, Big Pete disappeared from view. But the band pulsed on, driving his voice, which has a smooth raspiness, a grit that makes it real.
I got off my barstool and went to the men's room. I stood there--alone, I thought--reading the graffiti in front of me. I could still hear Pete over the sound system. But I also heard something else, a sweet whisper in the small room.
Suddenly, the stall door swung open and there stood Big Pete, zipping up while crooning into a cordless microphone. Without looking at me, he walked out, singing and shouting the whole way.
During the past 30 years, such episodes have made Big Pete Pearson an Arizona blues legend, a hardworking, lovable man who's dedicated to his craft 24 hours a day.
Consider the night last month when Pearson performed before a nearly empty Club Central.
"Pete was really on," recalls his lead guitarist, Kirk Hawley.
Pearson attributes his electrifying performance to the fact that earlier that day, he was nearly electrocuted. It happened at the bait shop where he keeps a barbecue stand. Wayne Smith, one of the proprietors, was flipping one of the circuit breakers.
"I threw the switch and it started arcing," says Smith. "A bolt, a fireball rolled past me and shot out of the box. I closed my eyes and turned around. When I opened my eyes, I saw Pete, who was about five feet behind me, rubbing his arm.
"It scared the shit out of us," says Smith.
Although Pearson's right side was numb and tingly, his face hot and his vision blurred, the show went on that night.
But, unfortunately, the show will not go on for long.
"The doctor told me I had to quit," Pearson says. "I'm goin' fishin'."
The years of toil in smoky clubs have taken their toll. Although he's booked nearly through 1999, Pearson's farewell Valley performance is scheduled for May 9 at the Rhythm Room.
"I like the musicians I work with, don't get me wrong," Pearson says.
But he's also worn down by logistics of managing a band.
"I'm tired of the BS from the club owners and the musicians. I have wrestled with it for the last 15 years."
Pearson, his wife of four years, Karen, and their daughter, Althea, are moving to Maine in mid-May.
When he goes, a big piece of the Valley's blues scene will go with him.
"He has been the daddy of the blues for a long, long time," says Bob Corritore, a blues harp player and host of KJZZ-FM's Those Lowdown Blues. "The blues scene will go on, but there will be quite a void."
Big Pete Pearson carries 290 pounds of joy on his six-foot frame. He loves to cook and loves to fish and loves to tell fish stories. But most of all, he loves to sing the blues.
He's been refining his craft for more than half a century. Along the way, he's played with, or been influenced by, some of the greats like T-Bone Walker, Little Milton and B.B. King, who Pearson says is like a brother.
During interviews in the comfortable living room of his South Phoenix home, and on various barstools around town, Pearson, 62, told me about his 53 years as a bluesman in Texas and Arizona.
"When I was a kid, they tell me to bring it from the heart, sing from the soul. B.B. told me this," he explains. "When I got a little older, I understood what they meant.
"The blues is real, it's something you feel down deep, it's like going to church. You can't get up there and shuck and jive, you have to preach from the heart."
The Blues Sevilles warm up their fingers. The guitars are in tune, the ivories are just right and the skins are tight. Keyboardist Moe Denham is completing his introduction: "Known all over the world as Arizona's King of the Blues, let's bring to the stage Big Pete Pearson!"
Pearson whips a cordless microphone from a holster on his belt. With a flip of a switch, he's on. A man in motion. Frenetic. He raises his arms high, points his fingers upward and throws his arms to the left as his hips shoot to the right. He continues with metronomic movements to the beat laid down by drummer Alvieto Robinson.
Pearson may be playing a slow "air guitar," or doing the "Pete Strut"--where his hips undulate with ferocity--or he may just rock his body across the stage. He sings to a young woman in a little black dress, the only one on the floor, dancing--slowly--for him.
"When I'm onstage, I get a natural high as far as doing what I got to do," Pearson says.
Stepping down off the stage onto the dance floor, as he frequently does, Pearson looks like a preacher walking through his flock. He "testifies" when the band kicks into a gospel mode and the club becomes churchlike.