It is always hard to learn of the passing of a bluesman that you knew personally. I feel fortunate to have known James Peterson when he lived briefly in Louisville from 1997 to 1998. It was a very short chapter in his colorful life and was not mentioned in his obituaries regarding his death from a heart attack on December 11, 2010 in Tampa, Florida.
Here is a little background for those who are not familiar with James, but may know about his son, Lucky. James was born in 1937 and was raised in rural Russell County, Alabama. He got exposed to the blues while helping his father at his juke joint. He left home with his brother for East Chicago, Indiana at fourteen, where he taught himself to play guitar. Two years later, he moved to Buffalo with his wife, where he developed a following in the late 50s. Lucky was born in December, 1963 and quickly got the reputation as a child prodigy for his talent on organ and guitar. James and Lucky even appeared together on Sesame Street.
Peterson opened the Governor’s Inn: The House of Blues in 1965 where he lived upstairs and provided the house band. This popular club became a regular stop for national blues performers for the next ten years. When name acts performed it began to attract college students, changing from a black club in a white neighborhood to a mixed venue for having a good time. James was also selling used cars during the day to pay the bills.
In 1970 James recorded his first album, The Father, Son and the Blues, with Lucky and Willie Dixon in Chicago. Between 1975 and 1980, James went back and forth between Buffalo and St. Petersburg, Florida, managing clubs and playing his music. A little known album, Trying To Keep The Blues Alive, which also included Lucky on guitar and organ, was recorded in 1981 in California. The Nineties were a prolific recording and touring period for James with, Rough and Ready and Too Many Knots for the Kingsnake on the Ichiban label. I think his best CDs were, Don’t Let The Devil Ride and Preachin’ The Blues on Waldoxy with Big Mike Griffin on guitar. An extensive interview of James by Brett Bonner in 1995 for the 1996 January/February issue of Living Blues reveals many personal details of his life. At the time of the interview, James was living in both Florida and his homestead in Alabama, running Club 49 where his father had his original juke joint. James acquired a blue and silver van with a matching trailer to travel the festival circuit. He left a legacy wherever he went. Beverly Howell, the producer of AOL’s Blues Chat, reported that when James was at the Poconos Blues Festival in July, he started his set by riding down a ski lift playing his guitar.
Peterson made frequent trips to Louisville in 1995 and 1996, performing in August 1996 at the Strassenfest, Stevie Ray’s and the Blues Garden at 10th and Dumesnil. While playing at Stevie Ray’s he blew the crowd away by walking out onto Main Street, mounting the back seat of a Harley Davidson and taking a spin around the block with an obliging biker, playing his guitar. When he returned to the club he rode on the Harley through the door and up to the stage still playing. James also played the Blues To The Point Festival in Carrollton in September.
In 1997 he decided to relocate to Louisville to establish a central location that was convenient for travel between Eastern and Midwestern festivals and tours. He moved here in March with his manager, Stephanie Mana, and bought a house to fix up by Victory Park. It is interesting that Louisville would briefly become the home base for two nationally recognized bluesmen with Duke Robillard also residing here. James Brown, who was with the Cincinnati Blues Allstars and Sweet Alice Hoskins, helped James put a group together and served as band director. James was still using two of his Florida band members for his band, the Dream Team. They included Danny ‘Boy’ Bagsby on bass and Clifford ‘Robot’ Thomas playing keyboards. Ted Tokarsky was his drummer and Louisville musician Rick Debow added punch to the group with his sax.
James was riding high with his two Waldoxy releases that were distributed by Malaco Records. There was a resurgence of interest for James to perform regular gigs at Kingston Mines in Chicago and locally at Stevie Ray’s. The Downhome Blues Festival in Huntsville, Alabama, and a two-week tour in France kept him busy during the summer of 1997. In July and August James took Michael Wells, guitarist with the Walnut Street Blues Band, on a month-long tour playing clubs and festivals in James’ old stomping grounds in Buffalo, New York City, Syracuse, Niagara Falls and Toronto, Canada. Then there was another month-long tour in Florida. Michael’s mother, Lorene, said “Michael wanted to do this as a tribute to Foree, for his dad had always wanted to go on tour playing his music, but never got the chance.” When they weren’t out on the road, they would rehearse at James’ house at Victory Park. This road experience was good for Michael, because it prepared him for when he began touring with Clarence Carter in 1999. Michael said, “James was a real road person whose music was his life. He could entertain anybody with his energy.” Some shows wore Michael out but he would never quit.
In January, 1998 James and Stephanie were married at a private family ceremony in Louisville. The neighborhood where James lived was getting pretty rough with drugs, shootings and vandalism to his house. It was time for James and Stephanie to return again to his roots at his old homestead in the country. The 152-acre wooded farm was originally owned by his grandfather. The house was built in 1870 and the club had been run by James’ daughter. When he was not touring, he was fixing up both places for a guest house and the “James Peterson Blues Club” with mirrors, wood paneling and fountains inside. James’ dream was to accommodate a festival with plenty of blues, boogie and barbecue. James formed his own label, Houndog Records, and recorded Wrong Bed! in 1999 with Lucky helping again on bass, keyboards and vocals. This record was heavy, honest and humorous. James and Lucky’s final collaboration was in 2004 on the CD, If You Can’t Fix It, released by JSP in 2004. I’m listening to it as I write this article hearing James’ bold gravelly vocals which preach a personal style of blues with real life messages in each song.
James was a bluesman whose shows were more like parties. His stage presence was limited for he was usually out in the audience using his lavaliere mike and remote pickup to serenade the crowd. Occasionally he would sing through his guitar pickup, creating a distant eerie sound. I can still see his smile, flashing his gold teeth, and the scorpion medallion hanging around his neck. His mind was always buzzing with catchy lyrics to use in future songs and he would sing a few bars to me to try them out. If you look closely on the west wall near the bar at Stevie Ray’s you will see a signed picture I took of James there, when he gave one of his many soulful Southern fried blues shows.
Jimi V (Vallandingham) and Screamin’ John (Hawkins) were the winners of the Kentucky Blues Society solo/duo competition and earned the privilege of competing in the 2011 International Blues Challenge this February in Memphis. They advanced to the semifinals, which was the furthest any KBS-sponsored group has gone in the Challenge. I talked to John about their experiences. They performed at Wet Willie's on February 2 and 3 of the preliminary rounds. They found out they had made it to the Semis on the internet, which narrowed the field of 82 competitors down to 30. The semifinals were held in four venues with seven or eight bands at each club on February 4. Jimi and John were at Kings Palace Café, playing just before Harrison ‘Sweet Taste’ Kennedy, who eventually was the second place solo/duo winner. They met Cole Stevens with the Bryant Stevens Band and ex-Louisville bluesman Curtis Marlatt who now lives in Minnesota. Curtis also made it to the semis in the band competition. On Thursday night John, Jimi, Cole and Curtis jammed together with the Stella Vees at the W. C. Handy Blues Hall. John recalled, “It was Curtis who ran the blues jams at the Rudyard Kipling when I first started sitting in with other musicians.”