Lucky strikes!

A blues prodigy at age 5, Peterson has played with some of the all-time r&b greats.

Lucky Peterson 370 (photo credit: Courtesy PR)
Lucky Peterson 370
(photo credit: Courtesy PR)
Some child prodigies lose their steam by the time they reach adulthood. For every Michael Jackson, there are countless pre-teen stars in the entertainment world who are washed up by the time they reach their teens.
Lucky Peterson was a prime candidate for the hall of obscurity. By the age of six, the gifted child blues musician had recorded a single produced by the legendary Willie Dixon, and had appeared on national TV in the US on both The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (as well as the popular quiz show What’s My Line).
A precocious kid playing expert blues guitar and keyboards and singing like an old soul – what better recipe for disaster as an adult? But true to his nickname, the 48-year-old Peterson was lucky enough to stay the course and develop his talent into a sustained career that has seen him evolve from novelty act to blues veteran, fusing soul, R&B, gospel and rock and roll.
“I performed onstage for the first time when I was five, but I don’t remember it at all,” said Peterson last week from his home in Dallas.
Born Judge Kenneth Peterson in Buffalo, New York, the bluesman took after his father, James, a blues singer who owned the Governor’s Inn, described as a northern version of a Deep South “chitlin’ circuit” roadhouse club. Virtually growing up on stage, Peterson began playing almost before he began talking. And he had the cream of the blues-making crop for his faculty.
"We had everyone coming through town – people like Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Koko Taylor, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Freddy King, James Cotton, Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker – they were my teachers,” said Peterson.
“I never had any formal lessons, I just picked things up by ear. My father showed me the basics and I just took it forward.”
Before long, Peterson was in the studio with Dixon in 1969, recording the novelty R&B hit “1-2-3-4,” which paved the way for his national TV exposure and a dizzying array of accolades. Peterson admitted that he wasn’t really aware of all the attention at the time.
“I knew I was on TV, but I didn’t realize that millions of people were watching me,” he said, adding that he went on to experience a relatively well-adjusted childhood. “I played basketball and football, and had friends in the neighborhood. It was pretty normal.”
Peterson also continued his musical path, though, studying at the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, where he played the French horn with the school symphony. But the blues beckoned when R&B great Little Milton showed up in Buffalo to perform and his organ player took ill.
Hearing about Peterson’s talent, Milton asked him to sit in, fell in love with his playing and invited the 17-year-old Peterson to join the band.
“It was my first time away from home and my first time playing in a big band,” said Peterson. “It was a wonderful experience.”
Within seven months, he had become Milton’s bandleader, and opened the shows with his own 45-minute set on vocals and keyboards. His three-year stint with Milton led to an equally long gig with Bobby “Blue” Bland as Bobby’s featured soloist.
“I learned so much from both of them – how to be a showman and take care of an audience, and be the best you can be every time you go onstage. You not only have to make sure people have a good time, but you have to love what you do,” he said.
The lessons proved valuable when by 1988 Peterson decided to concentrate on forming his own band and launching a solo career. He hooked up with the premier blues label in the US, Alligator Records, and not only released his own albums but accompanied label mates like Rufus Thomas and Kenny Neal on their records. Peterson soon realized that the job of fronting his own band didn’t end when the lights went up onstage.
“You’re responsible financially for the other band members, and you have to deal with any problems that come up,” he said. “You have to balance being the manager and being onstage. At first it was like, ‘wow, it’s a lot of work doing this.’ But it was too late for regrets – I was already out there. And I learned to handle it.”
Peterson has continued to regularly release albums and perform upwards of 200 shows a year.
But it will be his Israeli debut when he performs on December 5, 6 and 7 at Zappa Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Herzliya respectively.
“I’m coming with my wife and we’re really looking forward to it, it’s something spiritual for us,” said Peterson, who performs every Sunday at his Dallas church when he’s not on tour. “They have an open spot for me and I never miss a Sunday when I’m home. My wife is in the choir and I play the organ. Our lives revolve around the church – that’s what we do when we’re not out on the road.”
Despite their seemingly opposite foundations, playing the blues and spiritual music is not that far apart, according to Peterson.
“The lyrics are different, but the feeling is the same.”
And with Lucky Peterson, whether it was at age six or age 48, it’s all about feeling.