Peter John Downing Karp is an American roots/blues singer-songwriter, guitarist and pianist. Known as the songwriter’s songwriter, Peter Karp is a multi-instrumentalist whose Roots Rock style, mixed with Blues and Folk humor, give a unique and unusual look at life’s sometimes happy, sometimes sad reality.
Karp was born in Leonia, NJ a small town just across the Hudson river from NYC. His father John J. Karp was a military pilot and his mother Ruth Downing Karp was a copywriter and avid music fan. His stepmother Ruth Turner was an African American woman from the lowlands of South Carolina. By the time he was 8 years old his biological mother had taken him and his sister into the city to see many of the popular musicians of the day. (James Brown, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Temptations, The Supremes, The Four Tops, etc.) At 9 he lived with his father in a trailer park in Southern Alabama. It was there that he first heard southern “race” radio playing artists like Sun House, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf as well as regional country music out of Montgomery and Nashville. Later his love for this music would lead him to Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and the other rock luminaries of the 50’s and 60’s. He started to play the accordion at 7, the guitar and piano at 15.
Peter began his professional music career as a songwriter/keyboardist/guitarist with the critically acclaimed, seminal art-blues-punk band “They Came From Houses,” a mainstay in the stable of “The Underground Music Venue” managed by former Rolling Stones/Yardbird manager Georgio Gramalski. Playing NYC’s lower east side venues like The Mudd Club, Folk City and a favorite of CBGB owner Hilly Crystal (who described the sound as surf-punk-distorted blues, they opened and shared the stage with Marshall Crenshaw, Mink Deville, The Toasters, John Hammond Jr., The Stray Cats, George Thorogood, and David Johanson. While receiving much critical acclaim and offered a recording contract, Karp became disillusioned with the music business and creatively unhappy. He folded the band, walked away and married the lead singer, Mary Lou Bonney.
After leaving a commercially promising music career, he spent the next 10 years raising a family, traveling, and working in the film industry. Along the way, he worked as an editor with some film makers with which he shared a creative connection – most notably, Oscar-winning underground film director, Emile D’Antonio. He also continued working in music, directing, producing and playing with musicians Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Johnny Johnson, Van Walls, Don Henley, Michael Brecker, Richie Havens, The Jacksons, Ric Ocasik and Jackson Brown.
While on his musical hiatus Peter also became deeply interested in the rich African American culture that has flourished for over 200 years in South Carolina’s South Sea Islands. Influenced by his stepmother, Ruth Turner, who came from the area and guided by his friends the Pazant family of Beaufort, who are cultural ambassadors of the Gullah heritage and descendants of slaves, he immersed himself in learning about the Gullah and its musical roots, taking trips into and filming parts of the South Sea Islands where the original Geechee language is still spoken. His song “Geechee Geechee Wawa” is based on his experiences in South Carolina and the deep spiritualism of the people he met there.
After wandering, working and musing, Peter returned to performing with the life perspective he was seeking. In 1998 he made “Live At The American Roadhouse” a poorly recorded but exciting live collection of original songs that included “Moments,” a song that would be picked up and re-recorded for a national commercial for JVC. In 2000 Karp released “Roadshow” on the Indie Blues label BackBender. Though a small label with limited distribution, Peter received his first of many positive national reviews as a songwriter. In 2003 Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor became aware of Peter after a DJ had sent him some rough recordings of songs. The result was Taylor flying to the US to play guitar on Peter’s next recording “The Turning Point.” Mick also toured with Peter during that time. “Songwriters like Peter Karp, James Taylor and Bob Dylan embody Americana music – I’m a fan,” says Mick. One of the shows at The Bottom Line in NYC was recorded by Sirius Radio, but wasn’t released until 2016. “The Turning Point” tour brought Peter into the national spotlight and garnered the attention of the Roots Blues label Blind Pig, who signed Peter to a deal. In June of 2007 “Shadows and Cracks” was released and received overwhelming critical success. After a year of heavy touring in support of the album, fate intervened when Peter’s wife of 27 years was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. Peter quit the road to spend the last remaining months of her life with her and their children.
While on the road promoting “Shadows and Cracks,” Peter had met Canadian guitarist and singer/ songwriter Sue Foley at The Ottawa Blues Festival. After returning to the road, Karp and Foley had kept in touch only through letters. The struggles of touring, drinking and the death of Peter’s wife were chronicled in these letters which would become the basis and foundation for the album that Peter and Sue would record together called “He Said – She Said.” The album was released in 2010 by Blind Pig Records and immediately went to the top of the Blues/Roots charts as well as entering the billboard charts at #5. Critics unanimously hailed the partnership as unique magic. Their second Blind Pig Release, “Beyond The Crossroads” was also met with rave reviews.
In the midst of a busy touring life, the tapes of the live recording at The Bottom Line in NYC with Mick Taylor turned up and early in 2016, Peter released the tracks on an album called “The Arson’s Match.” The album is part of a charity project that he started in honor of his late wife, Mary Lou, to raise funds for Ovarian Cancer Research. The album has already received radio airplay, award nominations, and positive reviews from around the world. In between tour dates around the US and Europe, Peter has been steadily writing new songs and recording. Final touches are being put on several new releases, the first of which will be out this fall. This first collection of new material will be accompanied by a companion re-release of “The Turning Point,” which was never released nationally. Peter has also recently done some recording with a German artist to be released on an independent label, and has been playing in Italy so frequently that he has another band there called Peter Karp & i Veneziani (The Venetians).
Karp is his own man, an artist who blends roots music styles into something that transcends blues, country, R&B and swamp. John Prine’s wordplay, Joe Ely’s rocking instincts, Billy Joe Shaver’s fatalistic outlook. -J. Poet [AllMusic.com]