“Groove is everything. you’ve got to make everybody feel good,” Billy Peterson says via phone from Minneapolis in the midst of his nearly nonstop gig schedule. Peterson’s dynamic playing has been featured on recordings and tours by artists such as Bob Dylan, Steve Miller, and most recently, the Dave King Trio.
Peterson’s sense of swing was instilled at an early age by his parents, who had already made musical marks of their own. “I got into playing bass because my mother and father were unbelievable jazz musicians who were on staff at CBS Radio in Minneapolis,” Peterson explains. “My dad used to bring me down to the live music studio and sit me next to Gene Krupa’s bass player, Biddy Bastien, who played upright on all of the shows. So, I developed a great infatuation with the upright bass. In the early ’60s, my dad discovered Midwestern musicians like Wes and Monk Montgomery. At that time, Monk was playing not only upright bass, but also a lot of electric bass. Soon after, an electric bass showed up at my house—a Kay electric that my dad got from Sears. There were always instruments in my house set up to play, because everyone in my family was musical.” Peterson’s musician siblings include sister Linda (singer/pianist), Patty (vocalist), Ricky (keyboards with David Sanborn, John Mayer, Stevie Knicks, etc.), and Paul (bass and vocals). “And while I grew up playing jazz, I was totally taken with R&B and funk, too. So, from the time I was 14, I became a jobbing musician.”
Peterson would soon be working with the top musicians of the day. “Around 1967, when I was 16, I got hired to work with the Righteous Brothers. They used to travel without a band, so I got called not only because I could read music, but also because I had a big Ampeg B-25 bass amp. Being able to play the electric bass and read music was a big commodity in those days. There weren’t a lot of musicians that could read and swing on upright, and also sight-read and play electric. That was my first introduction to rock & roll. Soon I was working six nights a week.”
One of your most acclaimed associations was with Bob Dylan on his famed album Blood on the Tracks. How did that come about?
I used to work at a cutting-edge Minneapolis studio called Sound 80. Bob Dylan heard about the studio from his younger brother, the producer, singer, and songwriter David Zimmerman, who I worked with often. One morning in 1974, David called me to come to the studio to cut some stuff. I walked in and there was Bob Dylan! I backed out of the studio and said, ‘David, what the hell is going on? That’s your famous brother sitting out in the studio, man!’ David replied that Bob hated half of the album Blood on the Tracks, which was cut in New York, but that he also loved half of it. David gave me the opportunity to bring some of the musicians I worked with into the studio. Dylan was totally open to our suggestions. I remember we even changed the key on one of the songs. I thought it would all end up on the cutting-room floor. But as history decided, the greatest hits from that album were done in Minneapolis: “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Idiot Wind,” and “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” In 2016 we got inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for that record, 41 years after it was recorded.
You’re also known for your two decades plus as a member of the Steve Miller Band.
In the case of Steve Miller, in 1977—a few years after working with Bob—I was back in Sound 80. Prince was there working with producer David Rivkin [a.k.a. David Z] on the demos for his first record. David introduced me to the great pianist, songwriter, and singer Ben Sidran. He was looking for a crossover bass player who could play funk, R&B, and swing, too. Soon after, I started working with him. Later, when Steve Miller heard us, he took us on the road as his band. I toured with Steve for 24 years, from 1986 to 2010, and I’m still working with Ben Sidran—I just got off the road with him.
Most recently, you’ve been touring and recording with the Dave King Trio, whom many people know from his work with the Bad Plus. What’s new with that group?
Dave King is like the poster child for modern drumming. He’s an amazingly great player. I’m his dad’s age, but I grew up playing with the pianist Bill Carrothers, who is my little brother Paul’s age, and Bill was a friend of Dave’s. The first time I got a call from Dave was to record with him and Bill around five years ago. I had never even played with him, but we all worked in similar circles in Minneapolis. We recorded an album for Sunnyside Records called I’ve Been Ringing You. That record got great reviews, and not long after, ECM Records founder Manfred Eicher fell in love with the band and signed the Dave King Trio. We have a new record coming out soon.
You’re known as a player with unwavering time and feel. Is that where everything starts for you musically?
Absolutely. My early influences on bass were Ray Brown, Sam Jones, James Jamerson—cats with grooves that were Jacques Cousteau deep. If it ain’t grooving, nobody’s gonna have a smile on their face
Dave King with Bill Carrothers & Billy Peterson, I’ve Been Ringing You [2012, Sunnyside]; Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks [1975, Columbia]
Bass GA Nelson 5-string, ’68 Fender Precision, 150-year-old Juzek e upright
Strings GHS, Thomastik-Infeld Spirocore Light orchestra gauge