On any given night in Charleston, South Carolina there are a dozen or more guys playing acoustic guitars in various bars and restaurants, delivering the classics and taking requests from the regulars and the tourists. I first met Pete Ledbetter when he was deep into that scene, a working musician who literally sang for his supper almost every night, and consider him one of my oldest musician friends. So it was with heavy heart and many memories that news came first of his recent illness, and now his passing today just days before his 59th birthday, which would have happened on the 20th.
As a young fresh-out-of-college nightlife participant and music fan, it was guys like Pete and his peers Carroll Brown, Robert Hutto, Michael Murray, Jeff Houts, and others who were the bedrock of many long nights out on the town in the Holy City. We’d start at the Best Friend Lounge, move to wherever Pete or Jeff or Robert was playing that week, take in a band at the Music Farm, Cumberlands or Myskyn’s, then congregate at the Back Market Cafe as everywhere else was closing. Musicians would filter in after their regular gigs and invariably wind up jamming on that tiny corner stage well into the morning, with us night owls the beneficiaries of their need to just keep playing.
One of those nights in particular stands out, and as always Pete was there. It was a Sunday so even the Back Market was set to close at 2 a.m., but by closing time the stage had filled with Robert Hutto, Carroll Brown, Michael Murray, and Pete–playing his ever-present harmonica. A generous patron offered to ‘rent the bar’ and make it a private party, so they closed the doors and those lucky enough to be locked inside saw a two-plus hour jam session that ran through every Dylan and Van Morrison song you could name; to this day I don’t think I’ll ever hear another “Tangled Up in Blue” that I’ll remember more vividly. That night was the impetus for Hutto to record his classic “Shadows” album, which Pete appears on–playing harmonica, of course.
One of my other most vivid memories of Pete was a panel discussion we had during a Charleston Music Showcase in the early 1990’s when I was writing for Charleston’s Free Time. Pete was visibly skeptical of the proceedings, as he was already a bit on the curmudgeonly side at the time, but he sat and listened, offering only one question. Looking back now, I’m not convinced he wasn’t pulling my leg a little bit with it.
“You know what kind of music I play,” he said. “What demographic should I be marketing it to?”
I can’t remember my exact answer but it had something to do with him needing to just play his music and the audience would find him. Naive, in retrospect, but in reality there wasn’t really a market for what Pete did, at least not in a national/radio/record deal sense. He was one of those guys who would make you forget your troubles for an hour or two just by playing a familiar tune for you, or shooting the breeze between sets of what for him was yet another three-hour gig. Think Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”, but with a guitar and a harmonica.
Pete was always a little different than the average Jimmy Buffett human jukebox that’s always been popular in Charleston, however, as his repertoire ran to obscure blues, folk, and British Invasion rock ‘n’ roll. He’d usually play an original or two, sometimes the classic, raunchy “Cadillac Ass” if it was late and the crowd was drinking enough. And because he did work in Charleston, he’d play a Buffett tune or two, but only the really old stuff.
Long after I’d moved away from Charleston Pete hosted a songwriter’s open mike in West Ashley, I dropped in once or twice when I was in town but didn’t see him much over the past decade or so. When I did, it was as if we’d just gone a week or two between run-ins. I’ve known a lot of musicians over the years but few with as big a heart, or a heart for just getting up and playing, night after night. Those trips to Charleston will continue, but the Holy City will have a music-shaped hole in it for a while.