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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.
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."
He was especially fond of B.B. King (Pearson's voice has been compared with King's) and T-Bone Walker.
"I learned their style of music and the way that they operated and watched them onstage. I learned my stage presentation from just watching these guys.
"I like T-Bone's style of music. T-Bone's not the greatest singer in the world, but he is one devastating guitarist, and I like the way he arrange all his music."
Pearson speaks reverently of King: "B.B. is like a big brother to me. He's still my idol. I love everything the man do, I love everything he represents. He's number one in my book.
"I played with him before I had a chance to be on one of his shows with my band. I knew how hard I had to work. I knew how hot B.B. was and I wasn't gonna go up there and slouch.
"I was gonna shoot the biggest bullet I had--and I did."
W.C. Clark, who played with the Joe Tex band and formed Triple Threat Revue with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Lou Ann Barton, remembers playing with Pearson in Austin.
"L.P. would be singin' pretty and I'd be playin' pretty, and he'd look at me, smile and say, 'It's good, ain't it, baby?'"
Clark describes Pearson as "a man that has a lot of little boy in him and is so full of jolly."
"I had good schooling. I guess that's why I'm so dedicated to the blues. I watched all these guys and I enjoyed trying to do something with all of them. It's part of my life now."
He has been known as "Big Pete" for a long time. Just how--and when--did he get that handle?
"That started some time ago. I don't think we ought to go into that one. Oh, boy," he says, one gold tooth flashing as he smiles. "That one is a pretty good one."
Finally, he says, "I've always been a pretty good-size man and it kinda fit my reputation as far as being a big guy. So I just stuck with Big Pete."
Pearson first came to Phoenix in the late '50s, when he helped a brother-in-law move here. He landed here for good in the mid-'60s. As with his "Big Pete" moniker, he's evasive about what brought him to Arizona, other than to say it was "strictly an accidental thing."
He took a job at the airport, loading planes.
"Then I started working in the kitchen and they found out I could cook. And that was the end of that and they wanted me in the kitchen permanently."
But he wasn't playing or singing the blues.
"I kind of lost the feel for doing it because I wasn't with the same old boys. It didn't feel right," he says.
"But I run across some good people here," Pearson says.
Duke Draper, who died last year, gave Pearson his first gig in Scottsdale. Pearson was checking out the club scene when he caught Draper performing with saxophonist Dave Phillips.
"Duke was singing and playing the drums . . . he loved to sing like Nat 'King' Cole at the time," Pearson says. "I'm sittin' there listening to him and he said, 'We're going to do some blues.' So they started doin' a little blues and . . . I told him, 'Hey, man, let me take a whack at that.'"
Draper immediately asked Pearson to join his band.
"We was the first blues band to ever work in Scottsdale," Pearson says. "If I remember right, I think the club was called the Iron Horse."
Ever since, Pearson has been a mainstay in the Valley blues scene.
After his stint with Draper, Pearson joined Jimmy Knight and the Knights of Rhythm for about a year.
"He was an Ike Turner fanatic," Pearson recalls. "This guitar player--he tried to dress like Ike, tried to sing like Ike, he acted like Ike, he even tried to treat his women like Ike.
"We went over to California and he run off and left all the band and band members in L.A. . . . That's when I tried to get my own band together and make things happen here."
By the late '70s, Pearson was the front man for Drivin' Wheel. Nancy Dalessandro, currently lead guitarist with Sistah Blue, played with Pearson back then. "We had a blast working with him. We were just getting rolling in rhythm and blues, and blues, and Pete was the veteran," she says.
"The band had a powerful jazz-blues sound. It was well-rounded," says Corritore. "Big Pete brought inspiration to the mike. He was always at full tilt."
Pearson remembers, "It was hard to try to keep a big band working and getting any money out of it" for the band. "We split up and then I put together the band that I have today, which is 14 years old now."
Musicians who've played with him say Pearson never exploited them. Hubbard says it's always been that way.
"If L.P. had a dollar, everyone in the band had a dollar," he says.
As for the current incarnation of the Blues Sevilles, Pearson says, "I got some pretty good people working with me."
Moe Denham, an aging hippie who plays the "strap-on keyboard," or "Roland Midi Remote Controller," has been with Pearson since June 1994. A musician by trade, Denham is the music director and master of ceremonies for the Blues Sevilles.
Through the years, Denham has played with Neil Young, George Thorogood, Albert King, Gregg Allman, Lonnie Mack and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, to name a few. His home base before Phoenix was Nashville, and before leaving the Music City, Denham was told to hook up with Pearson.
"Pete represents a type of energy and music that is fairly urban and traditional. A lot of the stuff Pete does fits with my interests," Denham says.
The "strap-on keyboard," which acts like a keyboard on a computer, allows Denham to produce three sounds: a Hammond organ, an acoustic Fender Rhodes piano and a variety of horns. They all give the Blues Sevilles a fuller sound and the illusion of a bigger band.
When he is not keeping time like Big Ben, drummer Alvieto Robinson can be found giving riding lessons. His day job landed him a role in the recent TNT production Buffalo Soldier and a friendship with Danny Glover.
Robinson has been with Pearson on and off for 10 years. Before leaving Detroit because "Motown closed down," Robinson says he played with "Junior Walker, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, the Temptations and other Motown people."
"I am doing what I love to do best--playing music, traveling and making money," said Robinson. "That's what it's all about."
Robinson brings style to the Blues Sevilles. His pants have a sharp crease, his shirt or vest are always crisp and his boots shine.
Sometimes looking like Munch's "Scream" wrapped around his guitar, Kirk Hawley lays down the licks and slides his way into the night. Hawley, who was born in Alaska and grew up in Australia, the Bahamas and Trinidad, has been a member of the Blues Sevilles since October.
Uncharacteristically shy for a guitar player, Hawley did stints with Francine Reed, as well as the Effects, a Valley reggae band. During the past few years, Hawley, a computer programmer by day, "played about half a dozen gigs. Now I'm playing four or five times a week.
"It's attitude that makes this work. Pete is a hell of a nice guy and it's pretty inspiring playing with him."
The newest member of the Blues Sevilles is Kati Ingino. She came to Phoenix in 1988 to visit her grandmother.
"I went to Char's and heard Small Paul and Beat Street playing. That knocked my socks off," she says.
In January 1991, Ingino had her first gig with Duke Draper. She also played with Roadside Attraction and Sistah Blue.
During the day, Ingino is a businesswoman, co-owner of Coffee Dada, a Mill Avenue coffee shop.
She looks like a misplaced punk rocker--leopard tights, a black, low-cut, tight lace top, a tattoo on her left arm, and clunky, dusty boots.
She'd wanted to play with Pearson for years. "He's the hottest band around," she says.
Big Pete Pearson's philosophy on work: "I work every day, I work every night. It's not a matter of whether I got the strength to do it. If there is something need to be done, just do it. That's the way I was raised. There is no such thing as you can't do it. You can do it if you wanna do it."
"He plays just as rough for two people as he does for a big crowd. It doesn't matter," says former lead ax man Donnie Dean.
Bashir Chedid, one of the owners of Char's, appreciates that work ethic. "Big Pete shows the utmost class," he says. "He's very professional. He comes in when he is sick, he always shows up."
During the summer of 1992, Pearson put on five shows, in four cities, spanning three time zones, in a two-day period.
He arrived in San Antonio on a Sunday morning. "I did a show at noon. We drove out of San Antonio to Austin. I did another show there at 3:30. I drove back to San Antonio and spent the night there," he says.
The next morning Pearson performed in San Antonio again. "I flew out of San Antonio to Salt Lake City, did a show at 7:30 that evening."
He was paid in the limo on the way to the airport, and was the last person on the plane. "The plane was moving before I sat down," he says.
When Pearson arrived in Phoenix, he hailed a cab at the airport. The driver took the airport exit that would produce a higher fare. After some discussion, the driver altered his course.
"He made a U-ey and came back and he's driving fast. I said, 'You're gonna make me late.' Then, sure enough, there's a wreck and we can't get through. I have to sit there for 25 minutes. Now I'm already late. My band is about to go nuts because they don't even know where I am."
When the taxi pulled up at Char's, the band was already playing. "I gave [the driver] $3.50. He didn't like it, but I didn't care. 'Don't try to screw me, buddy. You're not making no more money off me.'
"My keyboard player was announcing me as I was walking through the door. He didn't even know I was there and he was announcing me. I walked through the door with my luggage in my hand, set it down and did a four-hour show."
Although he was born to be a bluesman, Pearson also dabbles as a cook, a teacher and a fisherman.
"I have a little barbecue place in Scottsdale," he says. "I make barbecue, work in the shop a little bit, overhaul grills. I need something to keep me busy."
The stand is next to The Fisherman's bait shop on East McDowell. Pearson often arrives before sunrise to stoke the coals and check the brisket and ribs that have been cooking overnight in the 500-gallon smoker. As the day goes on, he slaps some of his secret sauce on the tender beef, pork and chicken. He caters to workers at a nearby Motorola plant.
Pearson also bakes a mean peach cobbler. His recipe is included in the Arizona Celebrity Cook Book.
Among his prized possessions are the stack of thank-you notes and letters he has received from Valley schoolchildren over the years.
"I work with a lot of the schools," he says. "For the last five or six years, I've worked with the Arizona Center for the Arts," telling kids about the blues.
Some of his young charges even scratch out lyrics. "Big Pete Pearson is so cool, he sings the blues all over the school," one wrote. Another wondered, "How do you play so good?"
Sometimes, his blues tutoring show goes on the road. His friend Susan Gabuardi recalls Pearson's stops at the reservations between Phoenix and Durango, Colorado. "He will drive to the middle of nowhere to teach the kids music," she says.
Arizona's King of the Blues is also a blues ambassador, once touring Mexico for a month. "Some places they had to take generators because there was no electricity in the cities."
Pearson loves to fish: "Give me a rod and a reel and a bucket of water, and I'll find fish. If I don't have anything at all to do, you'll find me at the lake. I sit there and I do my best thinking, and I do my best music writing when I'm on the lake."
Favorite fishing spots include Lake Electra in Colorado, Bartlett Lake, as well as a number of private Valley fishing holes. He usually goes after bass and catfish, lured to his pole by Canadian crawlers.
One of Pearson's accomplishments as a fisherman is landing four-pound bluegills. "They're that big," he says with a chuckle, holding his hands about a foot apart.
"People say, 'You're full a shit' when I tell 'em," says Pearson. "But you can come by the shop anytime and see them. I got them frozen."
Although his best blues days may have been in Texas and in spite of his weariness at managing a band, Pearson says the "last seven years have been the happiest years of my life. I have been totally happy. I have a beautiful and wonderful wife that takes care of me and makes me eat right and do right and she don't fuss at me very much except when I come home too late. She don't fuss at me, then she say, 'You should've called,' and I should have."
He met Karen when he was performing at Cactus Jack's about eight years ago. "She used to come in," he says. "She'd speak to me and I'd wave at her. Once or twice, I danced with her."
One night after his show, Pete walked Karen to her car. "I asked her if she would let me take her out," he says.
They started dating, and four years ago, they married.
Susan Gabuardi says, "A guy who could sing and cook? Karen is a lucky lady."
Pearson may have been Arizona's blues ambassador for three decades, but the blues scene here still has far to go.
"We got good blues musicians here, but I don't think we get patronism that the bands should get when they play," he says. "People say they 'love the blues,' they 'really into the blues,' but they don't come out and check out the blues scene the way they should."
Although Phoenix touts itself as a big-league city, it doesn't compare when it comes to supporting the blues. Pearson suggests that blues fans and club owners take a good look at up-and-coming bands.
"Go out there and see, be there. Let these people do something. Enjoy those people. Give them a chance."
"I go back East, or to the West Coast . . . it's a total different world in the music field," Pearson says. "I've heard some of the worst bands in the world . . . and you can't even walk through their house. It's so packed because you've got blues lovers there."
He says younger blues bands are "not working at some of the bigger and well-known named clubs like the Rhythm Room, Char's or the Melody Lounge. I think it's because some club owners won't let these bands in because they don't think they're big enough to hold a good crowd. Well, they gotta let them start somewhere. This is the way I got started. Nobody knew what I was gonna be able to do when I started until I did it. Some of these blues bands need a chance to be heard.
"If they can't do it, then pull them back. But don't cut them short."
Valley music fans have a chance to see Big Pete Pearson for a few more months.
They might encounter him standing outside a club, his light-blue eyes closed, head bobbing, and waist gyrating, as he waits to be called to the stage.
Or they may see Liberdy, a bartender at the Rhythm Room, pour him another snifter of Christian Brothers.
Perhaps they'll watch him sit and talk with a young woman in a little black dress, or sway on the dance floor to the sound of the Blues Sevilles.
But after the first weekend in May, the stage will be silent and Big Pete will be gone fishin'.
"I don't want to see him stop. But I'm being selfish," says Ken Cahill, a co-owner of the Rhythm Room.
"He will be retiring in his mind, but somewhere, sometime, he will sing again," W.C. Clark predicts.
Dale Baich is a Phoenix attorney and student of the blues. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org