Richard Peterson's Busking Life

When Jeff Bridges plays Seattle, Richard Peterson comes along.

Before Jeff Bridges took the stage for his 2011 show at Chateau Ste. Michelle, the actor approached the mike to welcome the night’s opening act. “I get to introduce somebody who’s a dear friend of mine—he’s probably a dear friend of about half of you guys, if not more.” He stopped for a second, then asked, “You know who I’m talking about?”

When Seattle busker Richard Peterson joined him a few seconds later, a few voices in the crowd squealed. “Richaaaard!” yelped a fan.

Alongside street acts like Ed “the Tuba Man” McMichael (brutally murdered in 2008), Peterson made a name for himself in the early ’90s playing an iconic trumpet solo outside sporting events at the Kingdome and the Coliseum (now KeyArena). If you ever attended a game during those years, you couldn’t help noticing the man with a balding dome as round as his heavyset frame,and that unmistakable, bell-clear trumpet.

Peterson’s gift for composition—he’s released six albums and recorded with the likes of Stone Temple Pilots and Young Fresh Fellows—counteracts his more offbeat qualities. “Emotionally impaired” and “savant” are often used to describe the musician—his sharp mind, for instance, is a steel trap with dates and numbers. He’s obsessed with media figures and can rattle off the exact number of times he’s encountered KOMO anchor Dan Lewis, or every date, town, and venue in which he saw Johnny Mathis during a Canadian tour.

Many folks within the music community, like Paul Uhlir of rock band Sweetwater, are charmed by his eccentric ways. He befriended the artist 20 years ago when Peterson held down his only regular job, playing piano once a week at Moe’s (now Neumos). “I don’t think of him as having a disability,” he says. “Sometimes he’ll call my house 10 times a day, but I just tell him to tone it down and he does,” noting that in their conversations Peterson often inquires about work. “He just really wants to perform more.”

Though his connections have yielded guest appearances on local sketch-comedy show Almost Live! , talk radio’s Robin and Maynard Show, and even a documentary (Big City Dick: Richard Peterson’s First Movie), finding a steady gig has never been easy for Peterson. And since Tuba Man—an eccentric tubist known to sometimes play Peterson’s own tunes—was killed, he’s busked only a handful of times out of fear he’ll incur a similar fate.

“I’ll get murdered if I go back out there,” he says.

Without a computer or the Internet—technologies that don’t interest him—he relies on word-of-mouth and a perennial ad in The Stranger for the few gigs he does get. It reads: “Pianist Available. Clubs, Weddings, Parties. I’m Richard Peterson, 64-year-old composer, arranger, and pianist. I’m available to play parties, weddings, clubs, shows, etc. $200/gig. Covers and originals. Please call: 206-325-5271. Thank You! CD available.”

Yet Peterson’s enduring friendship with Bridges has proven to have professional benefits. The two met after Peterson sought him out while the actor was in Seattle in 1991 filming scenes for American Heart (in which, coincidentally, he plays a busker).

That night at Chateau Ste. Michelle, Bridges recalled their first meeting: “I’m getting ready to go to work and I hear out my window a trumpet of some sort. I look out there and see this guy smiling up at me. I had no idea who he is, and I go down there and get in my ride, and Richard comes up to me and says, ‘Lloyd Bridges’ son, son of Sea Hunt?’ ”

“I grew up on Sea Hunt,” replied Peterson, who taught himself trumpet and piano based on audio cues from the 1958–61 television series that starred Lloyd Bridges.

“This guy is the greatest expert and authority on Sea Hunt music I have ever met in my entire life,” Bridges adds.

Scott McCaughey of R.E.M. and Young Fresh Fellows can speak to that, too. “We invited him to play trumpet on a song called ‘TV Dream.’ The song has all these mentions of ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s TV shows, and I knew that Richard was really into TV music. As we were playing, somehow he had figured out a way to play the theme from Sea Hunt in the introduction to the song. It actually became the theme of the song.”

John Maynard, co-host of the Robin and Maynard Show, is another fan of Peterson’s singular vision. “People regard his musical ability because they recognize his real talent. His whole repertoire, all those Sea Hunt cues: When Richard Peterson plays piano he sees mountain peaks; he plays music that reminds him of a ’57 Chevy Impala steering wheel. It’s amazing to see that mind at work, and I think that Bridges has a appreciation for that level of awareness.”

“Richard is a great musician,” said Bridges in a recent phone call. “He’s a real piano man, and he’ll tell you that. He shouldn’t go back to the streets.”

Pressed for his thoughts on Bridges’ music, Peterson is cagier. “He plays country music” was his flat reply. Asked again for his specific opinion, he says, simply, “I like Sea Hunt !”

Though Bridges is currently touring with his band, the Abiders, and promoting his new film about hunger in America, A Place at the Table, he’s working “to get Big City Dick [currently languishing in distribution limbo] straightened out,” and makes time for his old friend in other ways, too. Last summer, Peterson hitchhiked from Seattle to Montana and unexpectedly showed up on Bridges’ doorstep.

“I was kind of upset with him because he didn’t even give me a jingle,” Bridges says. “You know, I love Richard, but just like any old friend, you want them to call you before they drop in.” He couldn’t have been that upset: They immediately launched a jam session in excess of three hours.

Richard Peterson opens for Jeff Bridges and the Abiders at the Moore on Friday, April 5, and is available for clubs, weddings, and parties at 325-5271.

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