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Remembering Lucky Peterson, Buffalo’s blues ambassador to the world

Jeff Miers

He was born in a juke joint, and when he died at 55 on May 17, he had been playing juke joints for some 50 years.

Lucky Peterson was Buffalo’s ambassador for the blues, master of a deeply funky, soulful and virtuosic form of the earthy, visceral American music that seemed to be his birthright.

He was born Judge Kenneth Peterson in 1964 and raised in Buffalo, where his parents owned the Governor’s Inn, a club that was considered a mandatory stop on the blues circuit in the 1960s and early ’70s. Peterson grew up around the greatest of the idiom’s greats, from Howlin’ Wolf to Willie Dixon, Etta James to Little Milton.

He was bound for the life of the journeyman blues artist, seemingly from birth. It was almost as if he had no choice in the matter.

His father, James, a blues guitarist, noted Lucky’s gravitation toward music from a tender age, and was all-in when his 3-year-old son began beating on a primitive trap set. By 4, the younger Peterson had expressed interest in playing the organ, and his father dutifully showed him the rudiments. Soon, when the likes of Buddy Guy and John Lee Hooker rolled through town for a gig at the Governor’s Inn, they would let Lucky, by then clearly a child prodigy, sit in.

Having a front row seat on the electric blues explosion still going strong at the tail end of the 1960s was the equivalent of living in a musical college where legends conducted master classes on an all but nightly basis. It was perhaps less surprising, then, when Lucky released his debut album in 1969, the appropriately titled “Our Future: 5-Year-Old Lucky Peterson.” He was all of 5 years old and could already claim a debut album featuring production credits from Willie Dixon, perhaps the pre-eminent songwriter in the history of the form.

Comparisons to another wunderkind multi-instrumentalist, Stevie Wonder, were not out of line as Lucky began making the circuit of television variety shows, among them “The Tonight Show” and “The Ed Sullivan Show,” earning plaudits and proving himself abundantly “able to hang” with the seasoned bluesmen he would invariably end up with in his band.

Peterson attended the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts but found what was then a more classically oriented program to be less than inspiring.

“If I knew what I know now, I would have been more serious,” he told The Buffalo News in 1989. “I would have really learned it. I can read a little music, but not like I’m supposed to know.”

At the time, however, the raw, visceral and unschooled aspect of his musical character is what was endearing Peterson to the audiences he would meet as he left school behind and took to the road as a member of blues shouter Little Milton’s band.

He was 17. He would never really leave the road again.

Along the way, Peterson became known as one of the most fiery performers in the history of electric blues, a man whose blend of technical prowess and a seemingly bottomless well of soulfulness was staggering to behold.

"Singing with both the strength of (Willie) Dixon and the range of Sly Stone, and attacking the keys with vigorous command, Peterson is one of those rare talents that can wow you with both his singing and playing," wrote contributing writer Seamus Gallivan in a review of Peterson's June 2003 show at the Tralf, published in The Buffalo News.

Seventeen years later, Gallivan has this to say.

"Lucky was the kind of dynamo who could make a crowd howl with his voice, organ playing, guitar, his whole vibe. Those who knew his dad, James, could tell where he got it. And those who knew the legends who mentored him understood how he honed it."

What’s so moving about being in the presence of very young musicians operating on an elevated, virtuosic level is the depth of maturity they are able to tap into. It’s as if you’re in the presence of an old soul, as hackneyed as such suggestions have become. Your rational mind tells you that there’s no way a 10-year-old can play with so much feeling, such a blend of sorrow and joy, because they simply haven’t lived long enough to earn it. But your ears are telling you something different.

Eventually, however, child prodigies can no longer rely on the novelty factor of being “so good so young.” Peterson is one of the few who were able to rather seamlessly make the jump from “that kid’s incredible” to “one of the greatest bluesmen living” status. He recorded some 30 albums in his career, earning the respect of everyone from B.B. King to Mavis Staples, toured the world ceaselessly, and, when he passed through his hometown for a gig, was welcomed as a returning hero. (Peterson called Dallas home since relocating there in the late 1980s.)

None of this meant that his life was a particularly easy one. No life lived on the road ever is.

There were long-running rumors of substance abuse problems, confirmed when Peterson admitted to battling alcoholism and cocaine addiction, crediting his family with bolstering his battles to get clean.

“They helped me turn my life around and keep me focused,” he told The Dallas Morning News in 2014. “I can’t say what tomorrow will bring. … But through all the ups and downs, I’m still happy to be here, in the right mind, still able to perform.”

He would retain that ability to perform until the very end.

In October, he released a new album, “50 – Just Getting Warmed Up!” When the Covid-19 pandemic knocked all concert engagements from his calendar, Peterson immediately embraced the live-streaming movement, performing a solo set from his home in Dallas in April.

One month later, according to a post on his Facebook page, he became ill and was rushed from his home to a nearby hospital. He died the following day, from causes that have not yet been specified.

“All I can really say is, Lucky was one bad (expletive),” Buffalo bluesman Jony James, who should know, told me this week.

“But even more than that – it’s just plain sad.”

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