Inventor, innovator, tradesman, and bluesman. All of these personify Milwaukee resident and harmonica player Cadillac Pete. After 15 years in the music business and sharing the stage with the likes of Bryan Lee, Reverend Raven, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Cadillac Pete And The Heat are touring relentlessly throughout the Midwest to promote their new disc, “Steamroller.” Pete sat down with Maximum Ink to discuss his origins as a player, his numerous patents, and give a few words of advice to up-and-coming musicians.
MAXIMUM INK: When was your introduction to the blues?
CADILLAC PETE: My introduction was probably 1975, somewhere around there. I was five or six, I saw the Allman Brothers in Milwaukee, and Muddy Waters was the opening band. I’ve been playing harmonica since I was four years old, and it was the first time I ever heard one electrified. I just tinkered around until I heard that show.
MAX INK: Was it Muddy Waters that grabbed you?
PETE: It was Jerry Portnoy, his harp player. [After the show] I ran out and bought a bunch of harps and tried to figure out the blues. I saw them two weeks later at what used to be the Spruce Goose. I sat right by the harmonica chair and it blew me way.
MAX INK: How did you become Cadillac Pete?
PETE: I was in a band with Kerry Weber, Jim Liban’s guitar player. We were kicking the blues around, and we were watching a band called Mojo Gray. I was hanging with Kerry and our drummer at the bar after we played the set, and he says, “You played like a Cadillac, Pete!” I told him, “Don’t call me Cadillac Pete,” [laughing] and he said, “Ok, Cadillac!” The name stuck ever since.
MAX INK: Tell me about two of your patents, the harmonica case stand and microphone holster.
PETE: I came up with the idea for the harp stand when I was playing with Bryan Lee in New Orleans. Bryan is blind; he would mention the song to me, and by the time I would turn around and tell the guys, he would be counting the song already. I’m a tool and die maker by trade, so I was kind of forced into it. We were playing on Bourbon Street at the time, and I’ve been trying to market it since. I gave one to Jerry Portnoy and Kim Wilson. The harmonica holster is great because you can clip it on to your stand and get two tones on the same solo. One through the regular mic, and one through your harmonica mic. It works out nice. My job gave me access to the machines to make the prototypes. I did the design myself, and carved the first stand on a milling machine. I have a miniature machine shop in my basement, and I make them myself now.
MAX INK: What equipment do you use on stage?
PETE: I’ve got a Fender Twin Reverb amplifier for playing out, and I use a Harp King now and then. I like Hohner Miesterklasse harmonicas, and I have a 64-hole chromatic. I use a Hohner Blues Blaster microphone that’s all souped-up. I have a few green bullet mics, too.
MAX INK: You’ve worked with Reverend Raven, as well…
PETE: I’m still working with him a bit. We’re playing in Milwaukee in June. I was full-time for two-and-a-half or three years and did the “Slow Burn” CD with him. I traveled from Omaha, NE, to Baltimore, MD, doing work with him.
MAX INK: Any thoughts on the recent passing of Harmonica legend Carey Bell?
PETE: I saw him once, a long time ago. I really enjoyed his playing and wished I could have seen him again towards the end. He’s going to be missed.
MAX INK: Do you have any words for aspiring musicians?
PETE: Learn a trade. Learn something to back yourself up. It’s good to go gung-ho, but make sure to cover your ass. And practice. Never stop practicing.
Cadillac Pete & The Heat consists of Bill Siebert on drums, Karl Betz on bass, and Jim and Mike McCarthy on the double-guitar attack. Cadillac Pete will bring The Heat to Steny’s Tavern June 9, the Cranberry Blossom Blues Festival June 23 (www.blossomfest.org), and the Summerfest Harley Davidson Road Stage at 12:00 noon June 30.