Clarke Peters: 'I was 15 when I first stuck out my thumb and ran away from home'

He has starred in The Wire and sung with the Stones. As Clarke Peters returns to crooning, he talks about hating pop, playing pimps and making his first recording – at the age of four

A few minutes after I ring the bell at Clarke Peters’ home in a tranquil corner of north-west London, he materialises behind me, padding up the path with his wife, Penny. “Sorry, mate,” he says, the British colloquialism sounding odd in his deep, soothing east coast tones. “We were getting coffee. I don’t get to spend too much time with my wife.” Their youngest son recently left for university and Penny tells me she’s feeling “the empty nest thing”. Does he call? “Sometimes too much!” Peters says with a toot of brassy laughter.

He and I wander into the living room where a piano is covered in hats from some of the 64-year-old actor’s roles. Here’s one he wore in a production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. And here’s one from Treme, David Simon’s series about New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; Peters played a Mardi Gras Indian chief. He touches another hat and seems momentarily stumped before the penny drops. “That’s my wife’s,” he says.

Peters as Albert Lambreaux in Treme.
After the hurricane … Peters as Albert Lambreaux in Treme. Photograph: Paul Schiraldi

Simon has put a lot of work Peters’ way: the addicts-and-dealers tale The Corner, the housing drama Show Me a Hero and forthcoming chronicle of the porn industry, The Deuce. Not forgetting The Wire, where Peters was the wise, unflappable detective Lester Freamon. The show turned him, as he has put it, into “an overnight sensation after 38 years in the business”.

What is it about Simon’s writing that he responds to? “It’s intelligent,” he says as he retires to the sofa. He’s wearing a grey wool jacket, maroon shirt, cream trousers and baseball sneakers; his shock of hair looks faintly electrified. “You watch The Wire and you think, ‘That’s not just Baltimore. That’s how things work everywhere.’”

Even without Simon, Peters’ dance card would be full. He has turned up in True Detective, London Spy, The Tunnel, the legal drama Damages and the ITV western Jericho; a while back, he had a stint on Holby City and was even that rare commodity, a black face on Midsomer Murders. “I mix it up to remind myself that this is what I do. It isn’t who I am.”

As if to prove that point, he is currently preparing to be part of Guy Barker’s Big Band Christmas show. I ask how it feels to stand in front of that band and he swoons. “When there’s a good swinging big band behind you, you can lean back on it. If you know the arrangements you can play with that — when the horns are coming in, you might want to syncopate a melody or a rhythm with them. Sometimes it’s not what’s being played; it’s what’s in the gaps.”

Music has been a major force in Peters’ life: he wrote and starred in the musical Five Guys Named Moe and was part of the 70s soul group the Majestics, who provided backing vocals on Heatwave’s timeless Boogie Nights as well as for the Rolling Stones and David Essex. It’s also Peters you can hear singing the line “Oh, give me love” on Joan Armatrading’s Love and Affection.

He can’t remember when music entered his life: “It’s always been there.” But he knows when he understood it was something he could do. He was four years old, growing up in Englewood, New Jersey. “My father bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder when they were still fairly new. He and the shopkeeper played a trick on me. They pre-recorded some answers and then got me to ask the questions. So I’d say, ‘How old am I?’ And this box would reply, ‘You’re four years old.’ Amazing! How did it know that? Anyway we got this thing home and …” He falls silent and stares at the fireplace. “Oh wow. Now this is a memory. It was a Fats Waller song and I was singing into the tape machine.” He starts crooning wistfully: “I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter / And make believe it caaame from you ...”

As Detective Lester Freamon in The Wire.
‘It’s not just Baltimore. That’s how things work everywhere’ … as Lester Freamon in The Wire. Photograph: Blown Deadline/Rex/Shutterstock

Peters tumbled into music and acting in high school. Ten years ago, he went to a reunion and performed with people he hadn’t seen since childhood – Ernie Isley of the Isley Brothers, the jazz guitarist Cliff Richmond, the actor Peter Coyote. “The only one missing was John Travolta. The rest were there. We played, we danced, we sang. We were kids again.”

His upbringing was happy but that didn’t stop him running away from home. “Wanderlust,” he grins. “I was 15 the first time I put my thumb out.” He’d been walking the dog one morning when he thought: I’m outta here. “I opened the side door at home, let the dog into the cellar and kept on going.” On another occasion, he was dispatched by his parents to bring his older brother back from Paris. “I brought the big guy back for Thanksgiving. Then after Thanksgiving, we both took off for Paris again and never came back.” His booming laugh rattles the window panes.

He got a job at 19 in the Parisian production of Hair, which wasn’t the sort of acting career he had envisaged. “In drama class we had done Antigone. I loved the classics without knowing that those roles were limited for a soul locked in a dark body. The opportunities weren’t there.” It’s a problem he encountered repeatedly.

With Jessica Raine in Jericho.
‘This is what I do. It isn’t who I am’ … with Jessica Raine in Jericho. Photograph: ITV

His role as the terrifying pimp in Neil Jordan’s 1986 thriller Mona Lisa represented a fork in the road. “I wasn’t willing to play that again. I didn’t think any black actor should. I wanted a role that had some integrity.” His mother took her workmates back in Jersey to see Mona Lisa. “She told them all I was doing this big film with Michael Caine. And here comes her son, the knife-wielding pimp.” Then there was the porn video scene. “Neil told Cathy [Tyson], ‘I want you to lick down the front of him. Wow, man.” He begins to sing again: “What we do for our art …” Then he shakes his head. “My mother called. She said, ‘Son, I did not bring you up to act that way.’”

When the parts weren’t there, Peters created them. In Five Guys Named Moe, he imagined a forlorn young man receiving counsel in matters of love from five figures who burst out of his radio and use the songs of Louis Jordan to make their points. The show went from London to Broadway in the early 90s and has just opened in a new production in Edinburgh. Writing it was therapy, he says. “That was me trying to figure out how a young man gets on with his love life. It’s still relevant. Men don’t talk about those things. We boast about our conquests. Songs today leave nothing to the imagination. One of the numbers I’m doing with Guy is Shake Hands with Santa Claus: ‘If you want some candy, I’ll bring you the candy.’ How sweet is that? It’s not, ‘Baby back up on this shit, twerk on this thing!’ That doesn’t serve the man or the woman. It corrupts something in us as human beings. Kinda like that guy who has just been elected president.”

He tells me he was in bed when he heard the US election results. “One of my brothers called and said, ‘He’s in.’” He sighs. “As far as Trump goes, I wish him well. That’s all I can say. The whole world is watching.” He takes an optimistic view. “We’re being tested. Our patience, our tolerance, our altruism, our love. It feels to me that it’s that time. Use it for your growth. That’s how we’ll get through this. And hold on to the things you value because we’re in for a rough ride.”

• Guy Barker’s Big Band Christmas is at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on 11 December. Box office: 020-7589 8212.

Contributor

Ryan Gilbey

The GuardianTramp

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