After four decades in music, Paul Peterson finally finds his own voice on new solo album

STAR TRIBUNE FEATURE


It’s been 37 years and 57 days since Paul Peterson dropped his first album under the meticulous guidance of Prince. Despite releasing four solo albums and several group projects since then, Peterson never found his own voice — until now, with his new album, “Break on Free.”

“I think this record represents me better than any of the other records I’ve made in my life,” the singer said of his first solo album since 2003. “Because I didn’t have anybody breathing down my neck saying what I should do or what I shouldn’t do, I get to be 100% authentically me. It’s taken me this long to figure out who the hell that is.”

The 12-song LP is as eclectic as it is alluring. It gets funky like the Minneapolis Sound that Peterson learned with the Time and delivers with St. Paul & the Minneapolis Funk All-Stars. It has jazzy touches like those he plays with LP Music and the Peterson Family. It rocks like he does with the Classic American Rockers. It has some spiritual vibes like he offers as music minister at the Church of St. Patrick in Edina.

“I gave myself permission to be myself finally,” said Peterson, who will stage a release party Friday at the Dakota with an all-star band featuring Jellybean Johnson and Elisa Fiorillo, among others. “During my 40-year career I’ve played multiple genres and it always boils down to: Can you play it authentically? Do you do it passionately? Do you do it from your heart?

“Whether it’s going to be the rock guy, the funk guy, the jazz guy, it’s all music at the end of the day.”

On “Something in the Water,” Peterson sounds like Prince, who taught him phrasing for the Family’s 1985 debut featuring “Nothing Compares 2 U.” He sounds like Stevie Wonder on a cover of the superstar’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today” with a jamming ending. He sounds like Paul Peterson on “Song for Julie,” a spiritually tinged tune for his wife of 31 years.

“I’d pick her up in the car and she’d take over controls of the radio and switch it to KQRS and I’m like ‘I don’t want to hear this crap,'” he said. Except, in retrospect, those songs gave him a foundation that was helpful later in his career.

On his new album, Peterson rocks out on “Big City,” boosted by Oliver Leiber’s guitar, and on the title track, buoyed by Eric Gales’ guitar. However, that’s Peterson himself contributing the tasty George Benson-ish guitar licks on “Another Glass of You.” Other Minnesota players joined him, including brother Ricky Peterson, nephew Jason Peterson DeLaire and John Fields.

Frontman and sideman

Peterson, 57, is a multi-instrumentalist. That versatility has landed him touring gigs with Steve Miller Band, Peter Frampton, Kenny Loggins, Oleta Adams and Donny Osmond, among others. He’s conducted orchestras for Twin Cities galas for Starkey Hearing Foundation and Fraser Minneapolis. He’s as comfortable as a sideman as he is a frontman.

“It is two completely different mind-sets,” he said last week in his basement studio in the Richfield house where he grew up and recently resettled after he and his wife became empty nesters. “I’ve always had an ability to stick and move and do what the job calls for. On Sunday night, I was the lead singer [in Herb Alpert’s Vibrato Grill Jazz in Los Angeles] with great guests in the audience like Andre Cymone and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Fifteen minutes before [this interview], I was singing at a funeral at a church. I can compartmentalize. And they’re all equally important in my life. They’re all separate jobs I enjoy doing.”

Peterson is all about making music. Upon graduation from the Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield, he was a replacement on keyboards in the Time in the movie “Purple Rain.” He credits Time guitarist Jesse Johnson for taking him to school on funk. Then Prince formed the Family around the singer he dubbed St. Paul Peterson.

The Family broke up after one album, one gig and endless rehearsals, and Peterson made solo albums for MCA and Atlantic before resurrecting the Family as fDeluxe in 2011. He now plays jazz in LP Music with saxophonist Eric Leeds and does occasional gigs with members of his own family. He also fronts St. Paul & the Minneapolis Funk All-Stars, traveling the world to purvey the Minneapolis Sound.

That’s one reason he’ll be honored Sunday at the Minnesota Black Music Awards.

“As a connoisseur of jazz, R&B, funk, he’s been a constant contributor,” awards founder Pete Rhodes said. “It’s a no-brainer that we recognize him. He may be the first blue-eyed soul musician we’ve given an award to. He’s funky, stanky fonky.”

Over the years, Peterson has taught recording at Minneapolis Media Institute, played on records by stars such as Anita Baker and David Sanborn and produced sessions for other artists, including Daryl Hall of Hall & Oates.

Peterson reached out to Hall’s manager for approval of a rewrite of H&O’s “Philly Forget Me Not” called “Minne Forget Me Not” (it’s on his new album as an homage to the Minneapolis scene). Instead of responding to the question, Hall’s manager invited Peterson to produce Hall. The Minnesotan spent a week recording the Rock Hall of Famer in South Carolina but the sessions halted when Hall’s ex-wife died.

During the pandemic, Peterson has collaborated with many other esteemed musicians — including bassist Nathan East, drummer Steve Ferrone and trumpeter Randy Brecker — for his weekly “Funk Fridays” jam on his website. He’s at session No. 120 and counting.

Even though live gigs have ebbed and flowed, Peterson has kept busy with his production company, whether producing events or livestreaming funerals and weddings.

“At the end of the day, they’re all jobs. They’re all careers in the music business,” said Peterson, an early riser who runs marathons. “I’m not afraid to hustle. Is it fun to go out and play in front of 50,000 people? Of course, it is. But sometimes playing at Crooners or Bunkers is just as fulfilling.”

ARTICLE BY: JON BREAM (STAR TRIBUNE)

PHOTO BY: JEFF WHEELER (STAR TRIBUNE)

 

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