The Music Man

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Another of Peacock’s early collaborators was equally memorable—none other than Randy Jackson, known as the longest-running judge on American Idol, but also a bassist whose significant past accomplishments are, paradoxically, overshadowed by his broadcast celebrity. Working largely as a studio musician, he has recorded and played with Journey, Keith Richards, Carlos Santana, Jerry Garcia, Madonna, and countless others—including Charlie Peacock, back in the mid-1980s.An ’80s promo photo for the Charlie Peacock Band, which toured with General Public. (Photo courtesy of Charlie Parker)

“Never has a bass player gone so far,” jokes Peacock, who continues to collaborate with Jackson on projects for NBC TV movies such as The Jensen Project (with ER’s Kellie Martin and Sacramento’s own LeVar Burton) and A Walk in My Shoes (with Nancy Travis of Becker fame). “The great thing about Randy is, no matter what he does that is so blatantly commercial, you cannot take away from him that he is one of the greatest bass players in the world.”

Idol’s Jackson, asked to comment on his old recording and ongoing business colleague, is equally effusive. “Charlie is one of the greatest. Whether it be pop, rock, R&B, he is one of the most talented musicians and singers,” he says. “Charlie also helps and develops other great artists and talents. Charlie is definitely a future leader in the world of music. He’s always pushing the envelope forward in the right kind of way, and I love that!”

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Charlie Peacock’s singing can bring to mind, at times, Sting’s—and, glancing back further, Randy Newman’s—with its touches of jazz phrasing, the way he hints at chords and favors complex melodic constructions. Those touches are often at odds with the pop music settings in which his voice is heard. To focus on Peacock’s voice is to understand how much he is a product of the post-punk era—“new wave,” as Randy Paragary put it—during which he came of age as an artist. It’s a voice halfway between the blue-eyed soul of the 1970s and the androgynous synth pop from the dawn of MTV.

The thing is, Peacock’s voice isn’t as prevalent as it once was. He doesn’t sing as much as he used to, not in public. In the past decade he has released just three albums under his own name, two of which aren’t anything that the majority of his recorded work would hint at. They are experimental jazz albums, featuring some of the biggest names in the small but highly influential avant-garde Lower Manhattan jazz scene, folks like drummer Joey Baron and guitarist Marc Ribot. Both albums debuted in the top five on the CMJ (College Music Journal) jazz chart.

Fans of the various stages of Peacock’s career—from Sacramento band sideman, to pop singer-songwriter, to recording artist affiliated with the contemporary Christian movement, to prolific Nashville songwriter and producer, to record industry executive—may be surprised, even confused, by those two jazz records. But Peacock’s affection for the genre has really been hiding in plain sight all these years.

“Bassist Gary Peacock, who played with Bill Evans and currently plays with Keith Jarrett, is where the name came from,” the man born Charles William Ashworth says of his adopted moniker. “It was during the punk-new wave movement, around 1977—everyone seemed to be changing their names. Local legend had it that Gary Peacock lived in Chico for a time.” And so he christened himself Peacock, and has remained Peacock ever since. It even says so on his passport. (Recalls wife Andi, “On one of my first visits to his house, he sat me down in his bedroom and made me listen to Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew. It was the beginning of my jazz education. He was so excited about great music and true artistry wherever he found it and he wanted to share it all with me.”)

The many faces of Charlie Peacock on a few of his album covers from the ’80s and ’90s