For his first-ever venture to a Valley blues club, Kevin Albright picked the right time and the right place.
“We were just cruising around and we wanted to see some blues,” says Albright, sitting with his companion, Marcy, on a Friday evening at the bar of the Rhythm Room. “I listen to (KJZZ radio program) 'Those Lowdown Blues’ on Sundays, but this is my first time in a blues club.”
The Phoenix resident hadn’t come to see anybody in particular, but when he’s told that the night’s main attraction is Big Pete Pearson, the most popular and respected bluesman in the Valley for more than four decades, Albright smiles.
“Wow, we didn’t know (Big Pete) was playing tonight — that’s pretty cool.”
Nearby, Steve Shembab, a general manager for Guitar and Keyboard City, and his wife, Pattie Fransen, are having drinks at the bar. The Paradise Valley couple have seen Pearson perform several times.
“He’s more than a legend,” says Shembab. “He’s an icon.”
“Big Pete just puts on one of those shows that people really look forward to,” adds Fransen.
On stage, four musicians rip into an opening number of electric blues, with a bassist and drummer laying down a groove for the virtuoso soloing of a Hammond organ player and a guitarist whose stinging Telecaster licks recall blues guitar legends such as Hubert Sumlin and B.B. King. But there is no singer; this is just an instrumental.
Suddenly, as the band launches into its second tune, a booming voice rings out, and audience members crane their necks to see where it’s coming from. The crowd in front of the bar parts as a man, resplendent in a black suit and porkpie hat, ambles toward the stage, shouting the blues into a cordless mike.
Just as he has done countless times since arriving in the Valley in the early 1960s, Big Pete Pearson, 70, jumps onstage.
Singin’ the blues
Big Pete Pearson’s first gig — at a juke joint in Austin, Texas — occurred when he was all of 9 years old. At that time, Pearson had been absorbing the Texas blues from such neighborhood bluesmen as Ricky Mills, but it was his grandmother who encouraged Pearson to sing.
“My grandmother was director of the church choir,” says Pearson. “She gave me a little boost as far as learning how to do what I needed to do.”
After building a reputation as a bassist and singer, influencing, among others, his cousin W.C. Clark (one of Texas’ most respected bluesmen and former mentor to a young Stevie Ray Vaughan), Pearson helped move his brother-in-law and his family to Phoenix.
“He said, 'Why don’t you look around here and see if you can find a place to live?’ ” Pearson recalls. “So I did that, and then I got myself a job and went back (to Texas) and picked up my family and brought them out here.”
Moving to a city known for its country artists — Marty Robbins and a young Waylon Jennings — Pearson surprisingly found a vital blues community in the Valley.
“When I first came here, the blues were good — everything was happening everywhere — a lot of good blues, a lot of good players,” says Pearson of the Valley in the early ’60s. “I thought, 'Oh, man, this is gonna be good!’ ”
But even with an established reputation in Austin, Big Pete found it slow going in the Valley.
“It was kind of a slow start. I had to prove myself. I couldn’t just walk right in, you had to prove that you could do what you do.”
And prove it he did, becoming one of the most sought-after blues shouters in the Valley by the late ’60s. In the ensuing years, Pearson could be heard belting the blues with such bands as Jimmy Knight and the Knights of Rhythm, Driving Wheel, The Detroit Blues Band and the Blues Sevilles. Along the way he shared the stage with such renowned blues legends as John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Ray Charles and B.B. King.
They Kept Pulling Him Back In
In the late ’90s, Pearson retired to Maine, but his retirement didn’t work out.
“I didn’t get the bug (to come back), but I couldn’t get no air,” Pearson laughs. “Every time I turned around, (Rhythm Room owner) Bob (Corritore) was bringing me back! He’d say, 'Hey, Pete, I need you on such and such a date,’ so I’d hop a plane and come right back.”
His “retirement” lasted three years before Big Pete finally moved back to the Valley for good. Ironically, Pearson is poised to have the busiest year of his career. His new disc, “I’m Here Baby,” was recently released — the album is Big Pete’s first worldwide release — and he’s spending the rest of the year performing across the country and in Europe.
“I’m looking forward to it. I hope they work me hard,” Pearson laughs. “The harder I work the better I sound. I’m gonna keep on kickin.’ ”
“Big Pete Pearson is Phoenix’s king of the blues,” says Corritore, who has known Pearson for more than 25 years. “That’s just the way it is. Period. This new CD is showing the world this truth.”
>> Big Pete Pearson, with The Rhythm Room All Stars, performs at the Blues Blast Kickoff at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 23, at The Rhythm Room, 1019 E. Indian School Road, Phoenix. $12. (602) 265-4842 ormyspace.com/bigpetepearson.