Blues star Big Pete Pearson has helped fledgling musicians start their career, and now they’re doing a favor for him.
Local bands are coming together to raise money for Pete, who has suffered from prostate cancer for 15 years and, because of this, has mounting medical bills.
The benefit featuring a slew of musicians, including Pete, is noon to 8 p.m. Sunday, April 30, at Char’s Live, 4631 N. Seventh Avenue, Phoenix.
“I set it up so, within those eight hours, there’s going to be a band every half-hour who is gracious enough to give of their time,” said his wife, Kelly.
Admission is a minimum of $15, with anything extra going to the Litchfield Park resident’s medical bills. His medication alone is $48,000 per month.
A silent auction will feature items like a Squire Fender electric guitar, an acoustic guitar, Big Pete Pearson memorabilia, bicycles that Pete refurbished, Walter Payton-autographed memorabilia, and a 2001 Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
Those who cannot attend can donate via GoFundMe at https://bit.ly/BigPetePearson. About $5,000 of the $30,000 goal has been met.
Pete was born in Jamaica on Oct. 4, 1936, but raised in Austin, where he performed for the first time at the age of 9 in 1945.
“It was at the Triple J bar,” he said. “I remember I only made 50 cents a night. We couldn’t drink in the bar. We had to bring our own bottle, cup or jug. I was too young to drink. We couldn’t drink inside the bar.” I had to use the restroom in the alleys.
“That’s because he’s Black,” Kelly added.
He became a regular at juke joints such as the Victory Grill, Charlie’s Playhouse, Big Mary’s Bar & Grill, Ernie’s Chicken Shack and Sam’s Showcase.
Pete has been on the stage since, performing and writing songs for 77 years. He’s gigged with the likes of Ray Charles, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Tina and Ike Turner, Big Joe Turner, Etta James, Aaron Neville and the Neville Brothers, Koko Taylor, Gate Mouth Brown, Johnny Ace, T.D. Bell, Big Mama Thornton, T-Bone Walker, Screamin’ J. Hawkins, Pinetop Perkins, Joey DeFrancesco, Buddy Guy, Janiva Magness, Erbbie Bowser, Blues Boy Hubbard and Candye Kane.
In Europe, he performs with the Gamblers, while here, he helms the Big Pete Pearson Blues Band.
King gave him an important piece of advice that he still references. He told him to keep a “cool head” and keep pursuing music.
“He said don’t play other people’s music,” recalled Pete, who moved to Phoenix in the 1950s. “Learn how to write your own stuff. I want to do it better. I was just a little kid. I tried to make it come true, and I’ve had fun trying.”
His catalog includes “One More Drink” as well as “I’m Here Baby” and “The Screamer,” both of which hit No. 1 on the blues charts. He released “Choose,” his first collection with the Gamblers, in April 2012. Songs from it have been featured on “Chicago Fire” and “Chicago PD.”
“I would say 99.9% of all of the albums he’s recorded are Big Pete originals. They’re not cover tunes,” Kelly said.
“Two of his albums, ‘Choose’ and ‘The Screamer,’ hit No. 1 on the blues chart ahead of the late B.B. King.”
Kelly called Pete the last living blues shouter, someone who can put down a mic, sing to his audience unamplified and still be heard.
“That’s with the band playing,” she added. “Most of them are men. It’s not something that you’re taught. You don’t go into voice lessons saying, ‘Teach me how to be a blues shouter.’ You have it or you don’t.
“What’s amazing and astounding about it is he’s probably the last one left. Second, he’s 86 years old and he can do it.”
Pete, who was inducted into the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame in 1995, has one goal: to outlive his grandfather, who died at 116 years old.
Still, he’s not going to give up music.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “I just love to play music. I won’t stop. This year is my 77th year onstage. I just enjoy what I’m doing. What I write is from the heart, and it’s about my life. I write about the way I feel. When I hear it in my mind, I write it out. It comes from my heart.”