Lucky Peterson began his professional career before he turned five years old, playing the Hammond organ at a Buffalo, New York, club owned by his father. He had his first hit when he was six; it was produced by Willie Dixon. He appeared on network television, took up the guitar when he turned eight, and was featured in bands led by Little Milton and Bobby “Blue” Bland before his 21st birthday. By the time he issued “Black Midnight Sun” in 2003, the then 38-year-old Peterson was an old hand at mixing rock and soul into his blues-based repertoire.
The album found Peterson in a lean, stripped-down environment informed by major talent: drummer Jerome “Bigfoot” Braily, who worked with Parliament/Funkadelic; the wildly versatile bassist Bill Laswell; and Henry Threadgill, a towering figure in the modern and avant-garde jazz worlds, who wrote the delicious horn charts. As might’ve been anticipated, Peterson played guitars, organ and electric piano with power and confidence.
The fusion of electric blues and new sounds jumped at the listener on the opening track, “Henry Harper’s Free Press News,” which featured Laswell’s wet funk bass and Braily’s fatback drums as Peterson soloed violently yet tastefully on electric guitar. Mick Jagger’s “Lucky in Love” found Peterson growling as he sang while choking off notes or hammering the strings to add speed. Threadgill’s flute cut through the beefed-up workout on Howlin’ Wolf “Smokestack Lightning” that doesn’t go anywhere, but somehow still works. (Peterson seems to have been inspired in part by Muddy Waters’ faux psychedelic “Electric Mud,” an album “Black Midnight Sun” easily surpasses.)
The down-tempo numbers allowed Peterson to showcase his talent on the organ, especially on Syl Johnson’s “Is It Because I’m Black,” in which he created a warm underpinning with his left hand and added darting, high-pitched flurries with his right – and then dropped in a squealing guitar solo. Featuring a gorgeous horn chart by Threadgill, the title track was a smoldering blues that found Peterson trading off solos on keyboards and guitar before playing an extended outro on the organ. His composition “Truly Your Friend,” a gospel blues, served as a showcase for his voice and guitar on top, but he formed underneath a textured, multi-colored platform with organ and shimmering electric piano.
Peterson’s choice of songs of sounds to cover was a testimony to his resourcefulness and catholic tastes. His take on “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone,” Johnnie Taylor’s 1971 hit, gave the band a chance to toy with a sing-song hook while laying down a deep funk groove in which Laswell’s bass was joined by Alex Harding’s baritone sax. Peterson had a bit of fun while singing James Brown’s “Takin’ Loud and Saying Nothing” – there’s Harding’s honking again – while “Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa” permitted Peterson and Laswell to acknowledge the funk innovations by the song’s composer, Sly Stone.
With “Black Midnight Sun,” Peterson re-confirmed his reputation as a risk taker and a five-star bluesman. His performance was extraordinary, as was his choice of bandmates, including the inspired invitation to Threadgill. Because he seems to have always been active and appears that he’ll never slow down, he’s the kind of musician who is easy to overlook – a fate that has befallen too many blues performers. But “Black Midnight Sun,” a reward unto itself, makes it clear he is worthy of admiration and deep appreciation.