Some might think Albert "Big Pete" Barrow sounds a little gruff, but it's just his no-nonsense manner. Speaking with us in his northeast Detroit home, he talks directly, in a tone he's earned with his 72 years in the city while working as hard as any other man. At this stage in his life, he's best known as the sponsor of the city's most unusual blues concert series, an event that takes place every Sunday afternoon in good weather, at a place called John's Carpet House.
It's one of those only-in-Detroit things, right down to the name: Founder and patriarch John is dead; there's no carpet; in fact, there's no house. Instead, it's an outdoor blues concert that overtakes a string of city lots Barrow owns on the north side of Frederick between St. Aubin and Dubois. It's a joyful occasion, an extraordinary event that welcomes anybody who loves the blues and doesn't make trouble.
It has been in the news lately, however, because of a select group of troublemakers: city officials. They've have been giving Barrow a hard time, issuing citations, demanding hundreds of dollars in licensing fees, and generally giving him the runaround as he's tried to make good. So it's a good thing there's a bit of toughness to Barrow, who refuses to knuckle under. This year, he only missed three shows, and the Sunday concert series continues.
Barrow is a child of an Alabama father and a Georgia mother who moved to the city before World War II. "You know," he says, "this is where all the work was, here. People were making more money here. They wasn't making nothing in the South." He was born in the middle of World War II at Herman Kiefer Hospital, and went to parochial school and played music in high school, even working as a DJ at dances.
Barrow always enjoyed music, and was always, in fact, surrounded by music. Growing up in Detroit, he had his pick of some of the finest show bars the country could offer.
"Little Sonny, I used to go watch him on the North End back in the early '60s," he remembers. "That's where all the action was at. You had Apex, Zombie, Phelps, and then on the west side you had Henry's Cocktail Lounge. And then you had Ethel's over on the east side. So that's where I got to see all of these so-called 'musicians' and stuff. I've always loved the blues. But then I only got into it real heavy when I started going over here to the Carpet House when John was alive, and then I started meeting some of the musicians and stuff and then — boom. That was it, I got addicted."
Now, Barrow is the personal steward of a free weekly event that draws not just hundreds of spectators, including busloads of sightseers from Europe, but often attracts big names to its stage. If his audience were to try to buy tickets for a show elsewhere featuring the same entertainers, he says, "it would cost a nice little penny — and they getting it for free."
For concert information, or to make a donation to help fund Barrow's free weekly concert series, see johnscarpethouse.com.