Peter Levin: Quintessential Collaborator

Dean Budnick on June 28, 2024
Peter Levin: Quintessential Collaborator

photo: Chris Pizzolo


The term “musician’s musician” is the highest praise one can receive in certain circles. It designates that rare player who has earned an elevated trust and reverence from their peers. One way to identify such an individual, beyond hearing direct commendations, is to scan their musical credits.

When that list encompasses such artists as Gregg Allman, Korn, Public Enemy, God Street Wine, Blind Boys of Alabama, Amanda Shires, Ringo Starr, Aaron Neville, Zen Tricksters and the Beastie Boys, among many others, it is fair to say that title has been earned.

Yet as keyboardist Peter Levin looks back on his career, he is less focused on accolades and more appreciative of the fact that “from the time I was young and coming up, I never really had to have a full-time, nine-to-five kind of job. I was pretty lucky in that respect.”

His new album, Saturday Night Sunday Morning reflects some of his musical scope, blending both original material and covers, while featuring numerous guests, including Eric Krasno, Marc Quiñones, Spooner Oldham, Jack Pearson, Scott Sharrard, Lenesha Randolph, Lamar Williams Jr. and Shires. The record originated as a personal expression of grief in the wake of Gregg Allman’s passing. Levin had first met and performed with Gregg on March 6, 2013, during The Allman Brothers Band’s Beacon run, when the Blind Boys of Alabama sat in with the ABB. (Levin’s first appearance with the Blind Boys was on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in February 2008, following a recommendation from his friend and fellow keyboardist, Jason Crosby.)

That night at the Beacon resulted in an invitation to audition for Gregg’s band, which was particularly meaningful to Levin, who acknowledges, “I had lived that music. I knew a lot of folks who were transcribing Coltrane solos, but I’d be transcribing Gregg solos or Dickey solos or Duane Solos. So I knew that music inside out, and he gave me the gig after my second time playing with them. Once I joined Gregg’s band, we really hit it off. I definitely considered him not only a mentor but also a friend. He was the most welcoming guy and would talk to me about the music. He was the most gracious cat about that stuff. It was amazing.”

After Gregg’s death in May 2017, Levin returned to FAME Studios, where they had recorded the album Southern Blood. He recalls, “I thought, ‘If I’m going to record a record, I want to record it here because the vibe is so good.’ I wanted the spirituality that had been permeating through Gregg’s session. Plus, I had recorded there with the Blind Boys a bunch. So we did pretty much all the basic tracks there. I had two groups—I had the Blind Boys of Alabama band doing more of the gospel-influenced music, which is represented by the Sunday Morning part of the title, and I had my guys from New York, who I had played with for years, doing the more bluesy, funky stuff, which is represented by the Saturday Night side.”

Another artist on the album, with a more recent connection to Levin, is Shires. They first met when she opened for Allman. “Amanda would sit in every so often, and I was the only guy in the band who would give her the chord changes,” he remembers. “I would flash numbers with my hands when she was up there. That’s where we met, and we hit it off. Then at the end of 2017, she called me to ask if I wanted to play on a record she was making in Nashville. I did the record with her in January 2018, and by October, my wife and I had decided to relocate down there.

“Amanda was very gracious about bringing me into her Nashville scene,” he continues. “She also invited me into The Highwomen—I co-wrote a song with her on that record. Through her, I got to play with Brandi [Carlile], Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby. It’s been a very educational and enjoyable experience. It was also bit of an adjustment to go from the jamband and hip-hop worlds to this sort of Americana world.”

Unfortunately, Levin was forced to make another less satisfying adjustment in November 2021. After experiencing a shortness of breath following one of his own gigs that August, he came to learn that his heart was functioning at only 15% of capacity, which necessitated an emergency transplant.

“It’s a miracle that I’m still here,” he says with a mix of astonishment and awe. “I died twice. I was in this coma and I died. Then they brought me back, I came out of the coma and they said, ‘You need a heart transplant.’ So they put me in a coma again, I died and they brought me back. When I woke up, they said, ‘We found you a heart,’ and they put it in two days later. So to be given a second chance to do what I love and make all this music is just amazing. I’m so freaking fortunate. I had the support of my wife—I wouldn’t have made it through without her— as well as so many musicians and friends. I don’t even know what to say about it. The journey was scary, but then beautiful and it’s ongoing.”

When he finally returned to the stage, it was a full-circle moment. He appeared at the Beacon Theatre with Trouble No More, the Allman Brothers Band tribute act with whom he continues to perform, featuring a roster that also includes Brandon “Taz” Niederaurer, Daniel Donato, Roosevelt Collier, Nikki Glaspie and Lamar Williams Jr. “Originally, they told me I would be out of commission for a year, but because I was doing so well, they let me start gigging again four and a half months out, which was pretty unheard of,” he explains. “That first gig back was at the Beacon. It was pretty intense to come back at the place where I grew up seeing the Allman Brothers and to be playing their music. It was deep, man. It was emotional. It was beautiful. It was all of those things wrapped up in one. At times, I really feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”