Goin' Fishin'

Arizona's tight-knit blues community is about to lose its longtime ambassador, Big Pete Pearson

He will dance with a patron--she with her small hand on his barrel chest as he whispers the blues for all to hear--only to have another woman cut in.

Or, he may sit down at a table with a couple and serenade as though they're the only ones in the room. He adds a heavy dollop of sexuality.

"Why do I play the blues?" Pearson shouts from the stage as the Blues Sevilles drive him harder. "I've been around for a long time and I've paid my dues."

Big Pete Pearson wasn't always big. Or Pete. He was born Lewis Paul Pearson in Jamaica in 1936 and moved to the States when he was 6 or 7 years old. He was raised by his grandparents in St. John's, a Baptist community just outside Austin, Texas. His grandfather was a minister and his grandmother ran a local mission.

"I kinda got on my own at an early age and I was into music full force. I've always loved music," Pearson says.

His grandparents arranged for piano lessons. "I despised the piano, but I took lessons anyway because it was music and I didn't care." He eventually learned how to play guitar and bass.

"My grandma was the one who taught me to use my voice," Pearson says. She would "sit me down and teach me how I should express my words. She told me, 'When you hit a high note, you turn it loose . . . you bring it from here'"--he rubs his ample belly.

In the school choir, he says, "I sang soprano with the girls because I could hit the high notes."

He still hits the high notes. "Once in a while," he says. "I'll go up there and hit a high note and make somebody shudder."

Pearson played his first gig when he was 9 years old. His grandparents received a call from musicians who asked if the youngster could be a fill-in guitar player for a "spiritual group." His grandparents agreed.

Instead of stopping at a local church, the band landed at the Triple J, an Austin beer joint. Pearson remembers thinking, "Why would these guys bring me here? This ain't no church."

"Do you think you can play some blues?" he was asked. He let his fingers and his voice answer the question. He made $1.50 his first night out.

Patrons of the Triple J raved about the prodigy's voice and guitar work.
The "spiritual group" continued to play at the Triple J on weekends for a few dollars a night. "I was too young to realize when you get tips, they're all yours," Pearson recalls. "Nobody told me that."

The musicians finally figured out that the club owner was pocketing the tips--often amounting to $100 a night. Eventually, the group wised up and began scooping the money from the tip can before the owner could.

"We done ripped that can," Pearson says.
Pearson's grandparents didn't know he was playing the blues in a beer joint. He says he hid the money he made under the house in a cigar box. "I had no way to explain where the money come from."

Pearson's stage name in Austin was L.P. Pearson, and he graduated from the Triple J to other east-side juke joints.

"Playing in the jukes was dangerous, dangerous, man, real dangerous," says Pearson. "They start cuttin' and shootin' as soon as the sun goes down. But I played them anyway."

He believes his best days as a bluesman were spent in Austin.
"My up days was when I was working in Texas and I was working with Blues Boy Hubbard and the Jets. We was working six days a week."

Henry "Blues Boy" Hubbard, who still has standing gigs at Antone's and Club Serendipity in Austin, says, "L.P. is one of the best blues singers anywhere."

Hubbard, who counts Little Milton, B.B. King and Bobby "Blue" Bland as friends, says, "L.P. can hold his own with any of those guys."

Pearson played a three-string bass for the Jets. According to Hubbard, L.P. cut the three little strings off a guitar, tuned the three remaining strings low and changed the key by slapping a clamp on the neck of the guitar. He taught this technique to others.

"One of the things I learned from L.P. was that a guitar had six strings, but all we needed was three," says W.C. Clark, a cousin of Pearson's who's known as the "Godfather of the Austin Blues." "That was the first thing I knew about the blues. L.P. gave me my chance."

Pearson was influenced by a litany of blues greats who passed through Texas in the '40s, '50s and '60s.

"At a young age, it was B.B.," Pearson says. "As I got older, there were so many great musicians like Little Junior Parker . . . Little Milton, Albert King, Guitar Slim, such a load of 'em. I was in music heaven.

"I have so many people I just idolized. I thought they was the greatest thing that hit the stage. I wanted to learn how to sing like all of them."

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