Southwest Oklahoma's Resource For News and Entertainment
Saturday September 23rd 2017

BIG PETE IS ALL BLUES

Pete “Big Pete” Piehnik follows the same routine each morning: he downs a fresh cup of a heavy-duty coffee, completes a crossword puzzle and smokes a cigarette. Later on, Piehnik reaches for his Stratocaster and laments in lyrics for hours.

Or he attempts to—where he lives, singing about sadness becomes an everyday struggle, Piehnik said.

“It’s hard to sing the blues there when you wake up every morning in Medicine Park — it’s a really beautiful place to be,” Piehnik said. “I would not have been able to show you Medicine Park on the map ten years ago, but here I am.”

Piehnik comes a long way from the place where he got his start in music—he grew up in the Bronx. Back in 1961, his Uncle Philly, a musician who would often travel play shows in Florida and in Cuba, came back home to visit. Piehnik was five years old. Hearing these troubadours bring his house down with their music made him eager to make his own.

“I pulled him into my bedroom and I said, ‘Uncle Philly, I want to show you something,’” Piehnik said. “I played a song for him on rubber bands I hooked up on my dresser knobs. He plucked down on them a little and goes, ‘you have ‘em tuned one, four and five — you CAN play a song.’ He got so excited that he ran out to his car and he gave me a mahogany Favilla ukulele that he had in his trunk and a song book.”

His first song was “Am I Blue” by Billie Holiday, and Piehnik said he has been playing on the strings ever since. His early influences came in the form of requests that he took from pedestrians while playing on the streets.

“New York is a great place to go because you are exposed to all different kinds of music,” Piehnik said. “If you’re playing for tips, you learn all kinds of music because you meet all kinds of people.”

Working for an engineering firm put him at Fort Sill, and he picked his guitar and this familiar location after retiring. Making the rounds as a solo act at venues in the region, Piehnik said he still plays requests. Suggestions run the gamut—his performances cover Jimmi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and Neil Young. His voice is as rough as the southwestern terrain where he resides, but Piehnik can transition from blues to ballads with ease.

He also made regular appearances performing at Rinie’s with Juan Reyes, the trumpet player for the 77th Army Band. While Reyes was gone, Piehnik took note of his absence when assembling a band.

“I didn’t see him again for a while—I guess he deployed for a while—but then he was back in the area, I ran into his bandmate Juan Hinojosa,” Piehnik said. “He asked me what I doing for the Blues Ball, and I told him I was thinking about getting my saxophone player from New York and bringing him out. He said, ‘I got a friend named Juan Reyes who plays trumpet.’ I said, ‘you’re old friend Juan is my old friend Juan too.’ And that was it.”

After recruiting bassist Zack Holiday, tasking Bill Legue to handle percussion and getting JP Goode on the keyboards, Piehnik said the Solders of Blues (SOBs) were ready to play their blend of music to audiences in the area.

Playing with veteran musicians makes performing from day to day easy, Piehnik said, citing the SOBs as his influences.

“When we think of Blues, they’re not thinking of the Stevie Ray guitar-based blues; they’re thinking of the Miles Davis horn-based, Chicago style Blues,” Piehnik said. “It really helps because we already have a similar background and an appreciation for it.”

Big Pete and the SOBs began their set as the opening act of the Mayor’s Blues Ball in Medicine Park with a scorching rendition of “I Want to Take You Higher” by Sly & the Family Stone. Each musician in the band is instrumental in elevating the band to another level of distinction. 

“We might be the first ones in Medicine Park to ever play Sly and the Family Stone and Miles Davis on stage together,” Piehnik said. “A lot people are taken aback and go ‘wow, that’s different,’ because usually, the Blues Ball features a lot of guitar.”

And because they have ample amounts of material in their collective repertoire, Big Pete and the SOBs can play long after dusk falls over the cobblestone resort town in Oklahoma.

“We have enough material to play jams all night,” he said. “With musicians like them, it is not that hard to do anything.”