The Blues has changed enormously on its journey from its origins as a local ethnic folk form, to its current situation as the foundation of almost all popular Western music. With his wise analysis of the American scene in times of great change, Peter focussed attention on the music that gave disenfranchised people a vocabulary to express their experience and their ambitions. Expressing the thoughts of many others, he wrote, ‘I tried to repay a little of the enormous debt I owed to these musicians for opening up my universe.”
Research is the key to insightful writing, and Peter used the technique of hanging around, his subjects for a long while, almost disappearing into the background and observing ‘the worlds within worlds’, rather than relying on formal interviews. This allows his viewpoint to be both personal and colloquial, and he expresses his genuine enthusiasm without ever using gushing prose. During the 80s, he published ‘A Listener’s Guide to the Blues’, an extended essay, ‘Searching for Robert Johnson‘ and a novel, ‘Nighthawk Blues’. In 1988, he went with Sam Phillips to a party to honour Elvis’s birthday, and an acquaintance with Col. Tom Parker led Peter to begin his biography of Elvis. It emerged in two parts: ‘Last Train to Memphis’ (1994) documented the rise of ‘The King’, and ‘Careless Love’ (1999), analysed his sad decline.
Peter helped Martin Scorsese adapt ‘Feel Like Going Home’ into a film as part of his admirable TV series The Blues, co-wrote documentaries on Sam Cooke and Sam Phillips, and won a Grammy for his liner notes to ‘Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club’. Peter’s biography of Sam Cooke, ‘Dream Boogie’, published in 2005, tells the story in relation to the turbulent times of social change, and he is currently working on a biography of Sam Phillips. He is also Writer in Residence at Vanderbilt University.
Peter once said, “My aspiration is to write something that will last and convey some human truth.” Job done!