“They call me Chicago Pete. I’ve been in town for about six, seven months.” The man speaking is standing on the corner of Fifth and Market on a Friday night. He is dressed like a businessman, if that man’s business is being a pimp — or a Chicago bluesman. While speaking, he is playing an acoustic Dobro, some Korean make tuned to open E, and he’s doing a lot of slide work on it, Elmore James kind of stuff.
“Actually, I live in Tijuana and I come up here to work.”
When asked if he means club work, he says, “Yeah, I worked at Blind Melons in Pacific Beach, and I’ve had a couple of offers I haven’t followed through [with] yet.”
Does he always play solo?
“At Blind Melons I sat in with a band — you know Javier Batiste?”
I couldn’t say that I did but told him I hadn’t been around much lately.
“Well, he’s a friend of mine. He lives in Tijuana, and he invited me to come sit in with him.”
Pete’s tone is flat Midwestern, worn smooth by the wind off the lake, and it’s a few years south of young.
“I’m just now gettin’ to where I can book some club gigs here.” Pete has been playing blues for 40 years, since he was 15 years old. “In Chicago, I was last playing in the New Town area, you know, around Lincoln and Fullerton?” I nod. “Yeah, Broadway. Near North, you know? I lived in Oregon for 15 years, and I worked there a lot. Right before I came here, I was in Alaska. I was touring there with a guy named Gary Sloan and his South Side Blues Band. I went all over Alaska, entertaining these little fishing towns. We got into real rural areas. They love the blues up there.”
Pete says he is influenced mostly by Muddy Waters and Leadbelly. “I like the old stuff like Big Bill Broonzy, but then the newer stuff too, like Robert Cray.”
“Kind of slick, Robert Cray,” I suggest.
“Citif ied,” he corrects me. “Citified.” Pete starts riffing a “Dust My Broom” kind of shuffle, the groove is immediate, and people on the street pause and smile. His lyrics are properly incomprehensible for the first verse. The second verse goes: “She got a big bad bedroom, never turn down the light...she got a big bad bedroom.” Etc. “If I bring her some gin, she let me slip inside...”
He breaks off the guitar playing and sings out into the street, “She got some nasty, nasty habits, a shady sort of past, not the kind you bring home to Momma, gots to slip in ’n’ out real fast.” Resumes playing. “She got a big rear window, keeps her shutters open wide...”
When he finishes the song, I ask him what it was, and he says, “ ‘Big Rear Window’; I don’t even know who done it. Lots of people, so there’s my version.”
Pete says he has played on the streets. “All the way from Mexico City to Fairbanks, Alaska. All up and down the West Coast. I haven’t been to the East Coast, but I’ve been to the Midwest, of course: Chicago, St. Looie. I had an opportunity to go to Europe. I went to Prague, I went to London, Paris. Everywhere I go, they love the blues. Blues is a universal language. I feel like I’m carrying on an American tradition. There’s not many of us blues guys left. This generation of blues guys, most of us are white and we’re just carrying on the tradition. Somebody gots to.” He grins.
I ask him who is the greatest bluesman alive, and he says, “Most of my respect goes to B.B. King. I’m also a drummer, and I had an opportunity to fill in for his drummer two nights. This was in ’94 when B.B. was in Anchorage. He is a wonderful cat. I went on with no rehearsal, nothin’. But I happened to know the bass player, A.J. Jones. I had worked with him before so it was real easy. He cued me on the punches and the stop times. I’m a damned good drummer. I’ve got 13 different styles of shuffles. That’s why a lot of front men like me to play with them because every time we do a shuffle it’s not the same.”
Pete plays on this corner Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights usually. “Usually for those three days I’m bringin’ home between two and a half to three and a half. This is the best corner for street musicians. I got to get here early. There’ll be ten musicians who come here tonight. They’ll look at me and go, ‘Oh, shoot’ and they’ll have to head down the street.”
Pete has no trouble with cops because “as long as I’m south of Market, I’m legal.”
A woman comes by and donates a handful of pennies to Pete’s cause — survival. “See, now she’s a street person, a pan- handler,” he says. “She always gives me her pennies.”
Pete commutes from his Tijuana home by trolley. He takes the last train on Fridays and Sundays at 12:15. Saturdays it’s 2:15 a.m.
“I like living in Tijuana,” he says. “For one reason, if you’re a street musician, there are a lot of Mexicans who play on the buses down there and if you want to, you can play on the city bus — if you ask the bus driver permission. What you do in exchange for him is you greet for the bus, call out to people on the street the destination of the bus. It’s like a barker at a carnival. The bus driver will then take you from, say, downtown TJ to the border or the other way around. You sing about two or three songs and the people are conditioned to tip the musicians; to them you’re an artist. They’re very supportive of artists. Like, a mom and dad and a kid will be on the bus, and they always give the kid the money to tip, so they’re raised from birth to tip, see? I’m one of the first white guys to break in to the buses down there and play.”
I interrupt him to ask, “There are other gringos doing that?”
“Well, I don’t know. When I first started, I got threatened with violence. I just told the guys, ‘Look, I’m not gonna quit. I need the job. I need to work too. I’m not gonna quit, and I’m not gonna fight you over a bus, so just chill out, man.’ I’ve been doin’ that in Tijuana for over a year, and now those guys are my friends. They got a lot of respect for me because I did stick it out.
“When I first got to TJ I was broke; I didn’t even have a guitar. First night in town, somebody stole my guitar. I had to start from the very bot- tom with nothin’ — I had no place to stay, nothin’. Now I’ve got a nice guitar, nice clothes, and these guys see me doin’ that. They’ve got a lot of respect for that. I used to work 12, 14 hours a day down there. I still work down there during the week. Believe it or not, the Mexicans tip me much better than the Americans do. The Amer- ican tourists don’t even give me the time of day.”
Pete averages about 300 pesos or about $30 on a weeknight in Tijuana. “The average Mexican factory worker,” he says, “is makin’ about $65 a week. I’m comfort- able with where I’m at because I’m able to do what I want basically.”
Pete does seem comfortable, maybe even happy. If you ask me if he’s any good, I’ve got to say, yes, he is, though it’s hardly fair to approach a musician on the street with a notebook and tape recorder and review him.
Is it really the blues? Catch him on the corner of Fifth and Market on weekend nights, if he’s still down there, and listen for yourself. You won’t need even 12 bars to know that it is.