It takes a tough keyboardist to satisfy the musical needs of legendary singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Gregg Allman. But New York native Peter Levin is up to the task.
Levin grew up on the upper west side of Manhattan, with a musical curiosity that started early. “My mom was an amazing classical pianist, so she started me on piano around the age of five,” Levin explains. “I had an aptitude for it, so I continued studying classical musical all the way through high school and the first two years of college. I’m also a drummer, and I had studied at the Drummer’s Collective in New York City from eighth grade on, as well as at a summer session at the Berklee College of Music. So by the time I went to the University of Rochester in New York, I already had a good musical foundation. I was also able to study arranging and piano at the Eastman School of Music, its sister school.”
At Eastman, Levin developed a fascination with electronic keyboards. “I got a Rhodes and a Roland Juno-106 around the time I went to college in 1990- 91,” Levin says. “That’s when my interest in vintage keys took off. Later, I got a [Hohner] Clavinet (model E7), and I started getting into soul, funk, and even a little fusion music. But my main thing really revolved around things like the Allman Brothers and the funkier side of the blues.”
Levin returned to New York City in ’94. “I was in on a lot of different scenes,” he recalls. “I played with groups on the jam band scene like God Street Wine and the Zen Tricksters, but I was also a session musician for artists like MC Shan and Snow. It was cool because a lot of the hip-hop people liked that I played vintage keys, so I got to do my thing on their records, along with programming and playing synth bass. So I was floating between scenes, touring, and recording with lots of different bands.”
A chance studio encounter would lead to a breakthrough gig. “I had a recording studio in the Film Center building in New York,” Levin says, “and I heard from someone there that the Blind Boys of Alabama needed a keyboard player. The guitar player and musical director came down to hear me on a recommendation from [organist/violinist] Jason Crosby, and they loved my playing. I was with them from 2007 till 2015.”
Five years into his tenure with the Blind Boys, Levin met Gregg Allman at a tribute to Prince at Carnegie Hall. “That happened right smack in the middle of the Allman Brothers’ run at the Beacon Theater,” Levin explains. “The Blind Boys were asked to sit in on a couple of tunes with the Allmans, so I ended-up playing with them and Gregg heard me play while I was sitting side-by-side with him onstage! A few years later, in 2014, I got a call from Gregg’s musical director and guitarist Scott Sharrard to play keyboards for a tour. I actually went down to ‘sub’ at a rehearsal because the keyboard player at the time couldn’t make it. It turns out that they taped my playing and sent it to Gregg, and he loved it. After the second gig of that tour, Gregg offered me the chair.”
Levin’s current keyboard rig is lean, mean, road-ready. “I have a Yamaha CP300 for piano. I’m also using a Vintage Vibe 73 tine piano. It’s half the weight of a real Rhodes, so the crew loves me for it, and it sounds amazing,” Levin says. “I’m also using the Vintage Vibe Vibanet, their version of a Clavinet, with a built-in ‘auto wah’ that is sick! And I have a Wurlitzer 200 that I run through a Fender Vibrolux.”
Levin is also keeping busy in the studio. He played on Aaron Neville’s upcoming album produced by Soulive’s Eric Krasno. “You just have to be persistent,” Levin says.. “You’ve gotta take the gigs no one wants to take and you’ve got to play as much as you can. I also think it’s really important for musicians today to learn how to write and record their own music. It’s not only about being good at your instrument—it’s about building a catalog of your own.”