SEATTLE -- Richard Peterson, born 44 years ago in Chehalis, Wash., is a collector of "lost balls," a carver of wooden elephant trunks that he anthropomorphizes into companions named "Buddy," a man who must wear four-foot-long ties, a worshiper of Johnny Mathis. He's big and bald, his speech is fast and loud, and sometimes he spits when he talks.So he's eccentric, so what? Here's what:
Richard Peterson is also an artist, a street musician who has become a local legend, a composer who has released two self-financed solo albums, arranging and playing virtually all of the instruments himself, a man who has earned respect bordering on awe from established musicians and even enlightened normal citizens. Eccentric or not, his music is for real. It takes you someplace, someplace he already is.
He appeared last fall at Seattle's Bumbershoot, an annual three-day music festival held on the grounds of the 1962 World's Fair. In a many-windowed room, under an imposing chandelier, he sat at a grand piano playing warm-up chords as a small crowd drifted in. A few were there to see him. Most seemed to be resting their feet.
Abruptly, Peterson turned to the audience. "Does anybody have the time?" he asked. Somebody said it was 1:12. "My performance will begin in three minutes," he announced loudly to everyone and no one.
Bemused smiles and "What's with this guy?" looks were exchanged. Then Peterson began to play.
From this unusual-looking man came an unusual-sounding music, awkward and graceful at the same time, slowly entrancing even the relaxing skeptics. It was a Peterson original, "Let's Take a Trip to Spokane." Then, as his deliberate piano chording filled the room, he lifted a trumpet to his lips -- and played both at the same time."Do you know who this is?" asked a woman sitting in the second row with her two children. "This is Richard Peterson," she said. "He's great."
You're struck by his eyes. Light brown and clear, ringed with almost feminine black lashes, capable of holding you in a kind of diabolical Bambi-gaze. The eyes are set in a magnificent, hair-free head. And the eyebrows -- they're shaved too.
Beneath this mesmerizing mondo-cranium is an imposing body, neatly clad in work shirt, dark pants and boots, the tidy ensemble set off by a custom-made tie that hangs well below the knees.
Meet Richard Peterson. He's the kid who started special ed classes when he got to high school. His mother was told he was "ineducable." Even she mentions his "quirks." Social Security sends him a monthly check because of them. All of which may or may not have any bearing on his ability to create.
For the last 17 years he's made the better part of his living playing trumpet on the streets of Seattle, offering fervent versions of songs by Burt Bacharach, Olivia Newton-John, Barry Manilow and Johnny Mathis, and selections from his own vast catalogue -- "I Grew Up on Larmon Road," "Mt. St. Helens Disco," "Nova Scotia Serenade" -- accompanied only by rhythmic kicks to a change-filled coffee can adorned with the legend "No Canadian Coins."
Though on rare occasions he has opened for bands such as the Cramps and the Violent Femmes, alternative acts that appreciate his largely undiscovered talent, to the average passerby he's nothing more than an oddball fixture, the kind any American city has in droves, strange, endearing, maybe gifted, but ignorable if you're in a hurry.
This Peterson knows, and he's more than willing to tell you about it. "I'm tired of the streets. I'm too old and I don't feel like doing much more of it," he says. He speaks in chop-cadenced sentences that are as articulate as they are sometimes hard to understand. "I composed a song on my birthday entitled 'I'm Fed Up With the Streets, Never Want to Go Back There Again.' People say I'm famous, but the streets are the wrong place to be famous."
Peterson knows the right place to be famous, a place he has put himself whenever he can afford it, in hopes of ending "the crummy trumpet solo gig": the recording studio. This is where he shines, where he metamorphoses from aging freak-minstrel into one-take wonder.
"He's a genius, simply put, but you don't get that from seeing him on the streets," says Scott McCaughey, singer, songwriter and rhythm guitarist for the Young Fresh Fellows, one of Seattle's most enduring and prolific bands. Peterson joined the Fellows on a recent single, "Mathisization," writing both music and lyrics and playing multiple horn and keyboard parts. "Recording with him was just amazing," McCaughey says. "He has all the parts in his head, and blazes through them. We were sitting there with our mouths open.
"But he's an outsider. He's a totally viable musician, but probably not as a salable commodity beyond a stout legion of cult supporters. He wants to go for success in Top 40, new age or easy listening, but his ideas of what that music is aren't necessarily close to the mark, and the people who actually buy those records will probably never hear him. It's really a shame that his musical gift may never get out there. But he'll never give up."
Another devotee from the stout legion is Dennis Diken, drummer for the New York band the Smithereens. "His music may sound crude or unpolished to some ears, but there's a real heart there, I believe, a real innocence," Diken says. "He's got a real gift for arranging. ... In a weird way I could draw parallels to Les Paul or Brian Wilson, even Phil Spector. He's doing things by his own rules, by his own vision. The appeal to me is the whole package, the whole Richard Peterson experience."
That experience includes two albums, "Richard Peterson's First Album" (1982) and "The Second Album" (1985), arranged, almost entirely performed and totally funded by himself. The recordings are mixtures of covers and originals, and the music is at times quirky, enthralling, bizarrely mundane, yet always as compelling as its creator.
From the self-penned liner notes to "The Second Album": "This is an excellent album containing 12 great listening tunes, with wide variety of musical tastes, easy listening, rock and roll, country western, disco, soul and even a 'break dance' number. Some of everything except jazz, no march and absolutely no heavy metal."
Though he writes in commercial styles, from the bouncy autobiographical pop of "Living on Capitol Hill" to the countrified "Poor Don't Walk Lights, Why Do You Gotta Blink," his music sounds anything but: horn sections with all the heart and soul of a high school band, arrangements that could be from obscure '60s TV themes, keyboard parts that range from tasteful and precise to the kind of 12-fingered drenchings attempted at family get-togethers by older relatives with a thing for show tunes, and vocalists whose talent never outshines the settings. Yet in songs such as "Let's Take a Trip to Spokane," he achieves a poignant, softly roiling beauty, an authentic honesty that's impossible to deny.
That's what's wrong with this picture: Peterson's music is remarkable for what it is, but what it is is not what it's supposed to be.
Richard Peterson is off the street, at the moment, and holding court at his piano -- the keys slightly sticky -- in the one-room apartment in the Capitol Hill section of Seattle that he calls home. The bright Pacific Northwestern sun slams through the two windows at his back, giving his silhouetted form the appearance of a slightly nervous Buddha. Periodically he rises to play cassettes of his music, shushing you, index finger to lips, demanding full attention until the last vibration of each song dissipates into silence.
The neat room is filled with icons and totems of his few but intense passions, things that somehow all mean something to the making of his music. Some objects look like found art, others like art still waiting to be found.
On the dresser are 14 meticulously arranged balls, part of Peterson's "lost ball" collection, which numbers in the hundreds. Many are old and weathered, some adorned with boldly penned labels: "Globeball," "Xyloball," "Richard J. Peterson Productions Ball." "Vibraball" rests in the bathroom soap dish.
Peterson, who has an uncanny gift for dates and numbers, picks up a cracked golf ball. "I found this July 16th, 1986, behind Safeway," he says with an intensity that does not allow question. "I call it Fluteball because when I hear a flute it reminds me of this ball." In front of the window is an hourglass-shaped work composed of a round green pillow -- "my mother made it in 1956" -- cradling a white translucent ball topped with a smaller dark red ball. "This is Lady Ball. It looks like a lady."
Next to the twin bed that he easily dwarfs is one of Peterson's most treasured objects, "carved from an old stump or tree trunk in the Southwest Washington jungle, northwest of Mt. St. Helens," according to a small sign nearby. This is an elephant trunk; this is "Buddy." Roughly four feet long, the trunk-shaped piece is one of many, all hand-carved with obvious care and love. "I've made them on and off for 29 years. I used to find good wood in Chehalis," he says. "They used to be shorter, but now I like them longer. They are all my good friends."
Peterson gets along with people just fine -- he's no hermit who talks to the refrigerator -- but the trunks do seem to have a life of their own. He animates them, gives them power, and they do the same for him.
"I used to collect bent hinges -- they're kind of related to elephant trunks -- but those days are behind me," he says. "In 1984 I began making steel neckties, but I don't show them to the public. It's a private thing. I like the shape of these things, narrow at one end and absolutely wider at the other end."
The ties, the trunks and the hinges all embody a certain aesthetic for Peterson, and they also possess a commonality with one other unexpected element: the voice of Johnny Mathis.
"When Johnny Mathis sings a wonderful ballad, his voice and an elephant trunk blend together," says Peterson. "If you listen to Johnny Mathis and look at the elephant trunk it is appropriate, also similar to the tie. To me, his voice is love."
As Jung had Freud and Kerouac had Cassady, Peterson has Mathis. He became enchanted with Mathis in 1982 -- "I loved his picture on the 'Greatest Hits' cover. I liked his bent-up tie. I patterned the cover of my second album on this" -- and since then has crisscrossed the country to see the legendary singer perform, waiting patiently for post-show audiences at backstage doors and loading docks. He has seen him 118 times, twice with Buddy in attendance, and enjoyed 86 handshakes.
"Dick will sit for two to three hours backstage till Johnny comes out," says his traveling companion on most of his trips, his mother, who asks to be called simply Mrs. Peterson. "Johnny's a gracious person, and he knows him by now, gracious yes! Wouldn't you know someone if you'd met him 118 times?"
Not even Peterson's amazing powers of numerical retention, however, can keep these Mathis vacation details straight, so for this he has the "Mathis Mountain." Since 1983 he has kept a minutely detailed, multicolored chart; at a mere glance he can ascertain location, date, number of handshakes and money spent for each trip. Extended vacations sometimes heavily tax the Mathis bank account, sending the Mountain spiraling into "Grand Canyon Financial" -- and necessitating even more of the dreaded street gigs.
Television production music, the atmospheric arrangements behind the action scenes, is what first grabbed Peterson's ear as a child. "When I was 5 or 6 I noticed more than one TV show using the same background music, starting back in the 'Annie Oakley' days. But 'Sea Hunt' was always the best," he says. " 'Sea Hunt' music is the new age of the '50s."
The youngest of five kids, he grew up in Chehalis, a town about 85 miles north of Seattle, and started taking piano lessons at an early age. "His teachers told me you could hardly fool him on music, but I take no credit for that. I don't know one note from another," laughs Mrs. Peterson. "Oh, I can tell 'Yankee Doodle,' but Dick has a God-given talent. It's his and he loves it, and I'm proud of him. I wish I had the learning ability he has -- he's always had amazing powers of retention. But he's also got, shall I say, quirks."
Those quirks had Peterson attending elementary school "on and off, but for high school the door was closed on me," he says simply. "Then I went to special education." It was there that he began playing the trombone. "By 1969 I owned my first cassette recorder ... then in 1970 I bought my first trumpet, because I wanted to get that trumpet sound. ... I began playing the trumpet and piano at the same time. This trumpet-piano stunt has never been seen by many of us in this world."
One of his early numbers was "Let's Take a Trip to Spokane." "I wrote it October 23, 1969, at the piano. It was one of two waltzes that I composed for my 'This Is My Friend' series." The '70s found him living in Seattle, in his own apartment with his own piano, and playing the streets. But, unknown to most, Peterson was also building a reputation as a studio savant.
"I really didn't expect much when I first met him, but he surprised me," says Kearney Barton, owner and operator of Audio Recording Studios since 1958. Besides Peterson, Barton has recorded the Ventures, the Kingsmen, Quincy Jones and hundreds of others, most long-forgotten. "He's quick in the studio. I've seen professional arrangers take much longer to get anything down. ... What he wants is in his head, he plays it, and that's it. ...
"Could he make it? I don't know, but who am I to say? I tried to talk the Kingsmen out of doing 'Louie Louie.' "
Peterson is currently finishing up his latest outing, named for a song that is an ode to his hero. " 'Love on the Golf Course' will be my new age album," he says. "The golf course is a lovely place, and one afternoon in Las Vegas I saw Johnny Mathis playing golf. It was beautiful, so I decided to write this song." As with his previous releases, Peterson performs virtually all of the parts but vocals, which are supplied by guest artists culled from local admirers. His last album featured the crooning of a Seattle weatherman.
"Love on the Golf Course" is the first of five albums Peterson intends to record before the year 2000, the same year he will stop seeing Johnny Mathis. "I will have spent enough money on Johnny Mathis by then, done enough damage," he states. As with every other aspect of his life, he has planned out each album's subject matter, cover songs and titles of tunes he has yet to write. Fans can look forward to the religious, Christmas and show tunes albums, and a tribute to production music composer William "Sea Hunt" Loose. In that order.
Will Richard Peterson make it? Probably not out of the realm of cult hero -- it just isn't that kind of world. Nobody told him that, though.
From the lyrics of the title song of "The Second Album": "My second album/ 12 gracious melodies/ include this number/ keeping in company/ hoping that this record sells/ singing by a wishing well/ that's on my album too."