Big Pete Pearson can remember exactly where he hid his gig money from his grandparents, who didn’t know the nine year old was out playing guitar at a local bar. He can remember how demeaning it felt to have a racist club owner insist that he drink from a tin can rather than one of the club’s glasses, simply because he is black.
Mostly, though, Big Pete Pearson remembers working with an incredible array of blues legends, including BB King, Ray Charles, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Ike and Tina Turner, Big Joe Turner, Etta James, Koko Taylor, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Johnny Ace, Big Mama Thornton, T-Bone Walker, Buddy Guy and Joe DeFrancesco.
“House bands were common in the 40s and 50s,” says Pearson, who, at 75 years old is celebrating the release of his new album, Choose. “We had an eight piece band playing at Charlie’s Playhouse in Austin and we knew everybody’s music. The big stars could save money if they used the house band.
”They were the masters,” he said. “I concentrated on these guys and I learned all I could.”
Choose - his fifth in a career that spans 66 years - is a conglomeration of those influences. Today, the Phoenix-based Pearson remains an authentic voice in Blues. Called a “Blues Shouter” because of the sheer power of his voice, Pearson sings with a comfortable swing that is full of emotion.
Pearson was only nine years old when some friends picked him up at his grandparents’ Austin home and drove him to the bar where he began his career.
“We pulled up to the JJJ Bar. I thought one of the guys was going to buy some cigarettes or something, but they told me to get out of the car because this was where we were going to play,” he recalls. “I took my guitar and my little amp, and they paid us a buck and a half apiece. If my grandparents found out I was playing in a bar I probably wouldn’t be able to sit down today.”
Pearson honed his chops at the club for five or six years, saving his money in a cigar box under his grandparents’ house. By the time he was 18, he was backing well-known artists in the East Austin Jukejoints.
“It could be kinda frightening,” he said. “I was playing Charlie’s one night when I was 18 or 20, and I was wailing out some blues. I think I was singing something by Guitar Slim. This lady came up and told me to shut up, but I couldn’t hear her over the music. Next thing I knew there was a loud pop and I saw the doorman dragging her out. About 10 minutes later my guitar player asked what was on my shirt. I looked down and touched my shirt, and I was covered in blood.”
Still, Pearson, who learned to play listening to his grandparents’ battery-powered radio, devoured every opportunity to work with the traveling blues stars of the day. “It was the greatest thing in the world playing with those guys,” he says. “I loved playing with T-Bone Walker and Lloyd Price, because I just loved their music. BB King was Number One in my book, but I liked the different styles these guys played.”
Along the way, he was able to record with many of the artists, particularly those working with Don Robey’s Peacock Label, including Clarence Gatemouth Brown, playing bass for his landmark recording “Okie Dokie Stomp.”
Wanting to get a taste of the road, Pearson began touring with T.D. Bell and the Cadillacs. “I kinda liked the road,” he said. “We were in a different club every night in a different city. Everyday was different.”
But life on the road also had its downsides, as Pearson recalls the treatment he and his bandmates received from many club owners. “They would hire you to play, but you couldn’t sit in their bar and visit with people. None of the white clubs I played in would serve you in a glass, though sometimes you’d get lucky and they’d let you have a bottle.
“At the time, that was what was happening and I figured that was just the way life was,” he continues. “I didn’t like it, but you either play their game or you don’t play. It was a different era. I watched my friends and my parents go through things I resented. If I’d done anything about it, I’d have been beaten or hung. I never knew whether I’d see my grandfather come home or not.
“But as i got older, I just rejected that way of thinking. Now, I just treat people the way I want to be treated.”
Relocating to Phoenix in the late 50s, Pearson is regarded as Arizona’s “King of the Blues,” and was inducted into the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame in 1995.
His albums include One More Drink (2001), I’m Here Baby (2005), which hit #1 on Blues Charts around the world and won Best Blues Album of the Year at the Independent Music Awards, Finger In Your eye (2009), and the SCREAMER (2009).