Lucky Peterson, a keyboardist, guitarist and singer whose blues career kicked off with a novelty hit at age 5, eventually sprawling over dozens of albums and thousands of high-octane gigs, died in Dallas, Tx. on May 17. He was 55.
His death was announced on his Facebook page. Blues guitarist Shawn Kellerman, his longtime friend and band mate, said the cause was a stroke.
Peterson radiated exuberant charisma as a performer, with the ability to lock into a deep groove at any tempo. His singing, robust and rugged, showed the influence of Chicago blues, and he took pride in rousing audiences both at home and abroad. He had an especially strong fan base in France, where he was a perennial festival draw.
“Lucky was a child prodigy as an organist, but he also became a hell of a guitarist,” Michael Bourne, host of the Blues Break on WBGO, attests by email. “When I play some of the always incendiary instrumentals he recorded, I can’t always tell whether he’s playing guitar or organ — and usually he’s burning both!”
Judge Kenneth Peterson was born on Dec. 13, 1964, in Buffalo, NY. He came from a line of bluesmen: his grandfather had owned a juke joint in Alabama, and his father, James Peterson, was a self-taught guitarist.
James Peterson also owned a club called The Governor’s Inn House of Blues, a Buffalo institution and regular stop for artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy. The Peterson family lived upstairs from the club, and Lucky began playing music as a toddler, initially sitting in on drums with his father’s band, Jesse James And The Outlaws.
Then came the fateful day that he heard organist Bill Doggett in the club, falling hard for the sound of a Hammond B-3. His father promptly set him up with lessons, enlisting Buffalo native Dr. Lonnie Smith. “I thank my father, I thank God and I thank Dr. Lonnie Smith for bein’ there,” Peterson said last year, in Blues Blast magazine, “and doin’ what he did to get me started.”
Lucky quickly got into the habit of playing organ behind bands that appeared at his father’s club. One of them was Willie Dixon, the prolific singer and record producer who had a key role in scouting talent and organizing sessions for Chess Records. Dixon took young Lucky to Chicago, where he recorded an album, Our Future: 5 Year Old Lucky Peterson.
One song from the album, “1-2-3-4,” was patterned after James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please.” Released as a single, with Dixon’s “Good Old Candy” on the flip side, it became a hit, breaking into Billboard’s R&B Top 40 in 1971. The novelty of Lucky’s tender age proved an irresistible hook, landing him on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show, Soul Train and more.
By age 8, he was doubling on guitar. At the Buffalo Academy For Visual and Performing Arts, he also played French horn in the orchestra and sang in the choir. The Petersons moved around during his childhood, leaving Buffalo for St. Petersburg, Fla., then New York City, then back down to Tampa, where James opened the After Dark Club.
Lucky was living in Tampa, at 17, when he caught the attention of Little Milton, with whom he toured for a few years. He spent another three years backing Bobby “Blue” Bland. Then, working with producer Bob Greenlee at Alligator Records, he released his debut album, Lucky Strikes!
The album was a success, leading to a follow-up, Triple Play, before Peterson was signed to a major label. He released a clutch of albums for Verve in the 1990s, beginning with the aptly titled I’m Ready.
Among his other releases were a 3-CD set called Organ Soul Sessions, for EmArcy, and If You Can’t Fix It, which featured his father. A 2010 Dreyfus album called You Can Always Turn Around won the Grand Prix du Disque award — essentially the French version of a Grammy — for Best Blues Album.
Peterson worked often with his wife, Tamara Tramell Peterson, a singer who came up in the Dallas / Fort Worth scene. She was a part of his touring band and has appeared on most of his albums in recent years; a few, like Darling Forever and Whatever You Say, prominently feature her as a coheadliner.
In addition to his wife, Peterson is survived by a daughter, Lucki Peterson; two sons, Kenneth and Jaimon Peterson; a stepson, Tamaron Stovall; and two sisters, LaShawn Peterson and Tinisha Rogers.
Given that so many heroes of the blues have soldiered on into their 80s, the loss of Peterson is sure to sting, despite a considerable head start. His most recent album, released last fall, was titled 50 - Just Warming Up! — a proud acknowledgment of his half-century career, and a promise that will now sadly go unfulfilled.