Blues icon Leadbelly is legendary, in part, because of his versatility. Familiar with the blues, ballads, rhymes, hymns, and gospel, Leadbelly's influence is prominent in every genre of music in this country. Lucky Peterson, born a decade and a half after Leadbelly's death, has the functional dexterity of Leadbelly, yet the modernistic relevance of other legends of the music like Jimmy Rushing. Peterson has a quality that rings home to the common man, the blue-collar working class, and so an album produced by Bill Laswell seemed the farthest thing to working class. But Laswell brings something unheard in previous Peterson recording sessions, an avant-garde vamp that is sure to be of interest and certain to surprise. And Laswell brought some friends, to the tune of Henry Threadgill, Graham Haynes, and Alex Harding, all versed in the avant. Folks, Lucky Peterson, child prodigy, well on the road to becoming a musical legend himself, unedited and in his own words.
Fred Jung: Let's start from the beginning.
Lucky Peterson: My father had a club in Buffalo called the Governor's Inn. He brought in all kinds of entertainers, all the blues acts, legends like Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Bill Doggett, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, I can go on and on. Our home was up over the club and my father was a musician as well. So there was music in my father's club seven nights a week/ I got into it from God. I guess God decided that I needed to be a musician. I started playing drums at the age of three and from there, I started playing keyboards and my father showed me some things, showed me some guitar stuff and from there, I have been learning and playing. Early on, it was really just playing music. Now, blues is my life. The blues is a feeling and the blues is what I do. I not only do the blues. I do a lot of different things, but my basic thing is the blues. I mix it up with a little jazz, a little rock and roll, a lot of gospel, funk, a little bit of everything into what I do and to top it off, a little high energy.
FJ: How did you meet Willie Dixon?
LP: I got to meet Willie Dixon through my father. Willie Dixon came to my father's club and my father told him, "Willie, I want you to hear something. My son can play." That led to "1-2-3-4." My father wrote that song and Willie Dixon wrote the flipside, "Good Old Candy."
FJ: And Little Milton?
LP: I got out of school and was down in St. Petersburg, Florida and my father and Little Milton were really good friends. My mother pulled Little Milton to the side and said, "Milton, my son is out of school and you need to take him on the road because we don't want him to get into trouble," because at that time, I was just hanging out. Seventeen years old, peer pressure, you are hanging out with the fellas. My father didn't want me to go, but my momma wanted me to go and the women always rule. So that led me to a spot with Little Milton. I went on the road, but when Little Milton first come down there, he didn't have his band. His band had gotten snowed in in Memphis, Tennessee, so he called my father and my father told him to come on down and that I had a group and we played blues. So we played with Milton in Orlando the first night and the second night, he was in Tampa. We thought we were going to play and we went to the club in Tampa, but the bus was there and when we walked up, his keyboard player didn't show up and so he asked me if I wanted to play keyboard and I said "Yeah." I played that night and got two standing ovations and he said, "You really need to go on the road. I'm gonna talk to your momma again." At first, Milton wasn't sure he wanted to take me on the road, but after that, the next night, they talked and ate fish and drunk Hennessey and stuff and that Monday, we started rehearsal in Florida. By Friday, I was gone.
FJ: You did a stint with Bobby Bland, who during his day was quite the ladies man. Did any of that come your way?
LP: (Laughing) Oh, nah, ain't nobody look at me like that. I am just an old, big bellied blues man (laughing). Nothing like Bland.
FJ: When did you know it was time to begin your solo career?
LP: When I was playing with Milton, Milton would let me open and stuff like that and I saw that the audience was loving what I do and what I was doing. I really started branching out when I got with Bobby Bland. When I got with Bobby Bland, I said, "Man, if everybody can do this, I can do this too." I done had all the training that a fella needs. There ain't nothing to do but to get out there and do it. Bob Greenlee called me to do a record with Kenny Neal and I said, "Yeah, no problem." So I went down there and did the record with Kenny Neal and after I got down there, Bob said, "How about doing a record on your own?" I said, "Yeah, no problem." And here I am.
LP: When I was younger, I was looking up to Little Milton, Bobby Bland, B.B. King. I still look up to those same people, but now, I look up to God. As far as musicians, Chris Cain, I look up to myself. I look up to the older generation because that is where it comes from. B.B. King is still kicking. I look up to Albert King when he was around, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, that is the blues.
FJ: By playing everything and the blues, you are an artistic blessing, but a marketing nightmare.
LP: When I got with Bob, King Snake Records. Bob was like that. He said, "We want to record a blues album." From then on, everybody was like, "Just do what you do." What I do, I do it, but it always winds up to the blues. Like I said, I do a lot of different things and it is just the talent that God has given me to reach people and to play the way that I do. I am not the greatest player in the world, but I am a player. There is a lot of people out here that I respect and admire and I have a lot of people that I listen to like Chris Cain, Roy Rogers, Kenny Neal, Bernard Allison, I listen to a lot of different people, Wynton Marsalis. I listen to Parliament, Bootsy. I can go on and on, Incognito. I go to the gospel, Yolanda Adams. I listen to a lot of different people. I just love music, Fred. That is what it is.
FJ: Is there any music you will not play?
LP: No, for what? Why be afraid? I will tell you this, Fred. If it doesn't sound good, you won't hear it (laughing). At first, I was kind of afraid to play slide, slide guitar. I practiced a little bit and then one day I decided that I was going to try it. It do nothing but sound bad.
FJ: Has your impression of the blues changes through the years?
LP: It really hasn't. It just changed the energy. There's more energy. Today, the blues is life, everyday life, living. It has more energy. The energy is greater. I am sure when I get to be about sixty, seventy years old, it will be different energy from more young people coming up, up and coming. I am playing with more energy, but I am playing more seasoned, more soulful, more tasteful. I pick and choose what I do. That comes with age, you get seasoned. You get ripe just like old whiskey.
FJ: Your latest release, Black Midnight Sun was produced by Bill Laswell.
LP: My record label, Jean-Francois of Birdology of France approached Bill Laswell and asked him to produce the record and Bill said, "Yeah." He said that he was going to use Jerome "Bigfoot" Braily from Parliament and he mentioned it to me because I had never heard of Bill Laswell, but he gave me some of his stuff. Me and my wife sat down and listened to it and he was funky. "Let's go and try it. It can't be that bad." We did. We set up a date and met and did the record. Bill had all the guests. I didn't have a hand in that. I didn't do anything but go in there and play the rhythm on the guitar, play the lead, the organ and the keyboards and piano, left and came back home. My feelings of the record now isthat it is a great record. My feelings of the record when I first heard it, I didn't like it. When you are used to doing something and then your whole field changes, I am used to playing, like my last record, Double Dealin', was straight blues, funky blues, straight ahead. Then when I heard Double Dealin', I didn't only like it, my wife didn't like it either. We didn't like it. We put it in and listened to it for about thirty minutes and it was nerve racking and we turned it off. I said to myself, I woke up in the middle of the night and there's something about this record and this might be the main thing that takes me across. So we waited about another week and a half, two weeks and put the record back on and started listening to it again and it started growing on us. Everybody else that listened to the record loved it. But I guess by me doing it and knowing that it was something different and it was a different sound that I had, it didn't hit me. I didn't feel it, but now, I love it. I think it is one of the greatest records I have done.
FJ: How did you decide what tunes to cover?
LP: Me and Jean-Francois, we sat down in the hotel room and listened to about a hundred records. A lot of songs caught our attention and we wrote them down. Bill listened to some stuff on his own and we picked from there. I didn't have really the choice. The only thing I done was I wrote the songs "Truly Your Friend" and "Changes Your Ways." A lot of the stuff, they asked me if I wanted to do it and I said, "Yeah." I know Johnnie Taylor and I would love to do a Johnnie Taylor tune. I love Muddy Waters.
FJ: And the future?