Pete Holguin, a go-to drummer who has worked with many major Buffalo bands including Posse, the Billy Brite Band, Soul Invaders, Elmo Witherspoon, Stan & the Ravens, the Buffalo Blues Band and Junction West joined Rockabilly Greg (and Zooey) in the Flamingo Lounge on December 5, 2023. Pete is an inducted member of the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame with The Soul Invaders. He can be seen behind the kit every November playing the part of Levon Helm in the Sportsmen’s American Music Foundation’s production of The Last Waltz.
Pete Holguin: the voice of Levon for Buffalo’s Last Waltz: By Elmer Ploetz
Pete Holguin may be the voice of Levon Helm in the Buffalo version of “The Last Waltz,” but that doesn’t mean he tries to imitate him.
“Nobody can sound like Levon,” he said in a recent interview. “Maybe somebody from Arkansas can. But I try to sing the song the best I can, and people seem to like it.”
Holguin is a Buffalo Music Hall of Fame drummer and he’s known for his work with a drum kit, but he’s often pitched in with some vocals. But he’s rarely been in the spotlight the way he is in Buffalo’s version of “The Last Waltz.”
He said he was a little nervous doing it the first couple of times he performed the “Last Waltz” shows, but now he’s more relaxed. But it still takes a lot of concentration. There isn’t much chance to look out at the crowd and appreciate the glow of the audience reaction — that’s for after the show is over.
For Holguin, it’s been a long road to Asbury Hall on Delaware Avenue. As with a lot of performers, it began with the classics … i.e. Elvis and the ‘50s rockers. Fats Domino made a particular impression.
His father was from Mexico and did a lot of interpreting for new residents in the area of what is now Larkinville (their house is no longer there) and then South Buffalo. At parties at their house, there was always music – usually from Spanish-singing guitar players.
But Holguin’s music life really took off when the Beatles played the Ed Sullivan Show and the British Invasion erupted. The Animals were his British band of choice and within a couple of years he was playing professionally, making a living playing the bars in Niagara Falls and Buffalo with the Fugitives.
He took a couple of years off when he was married and his daughter Jennifer was born, but the marriage didn’t work out and he found himself playing music again.
He still recalls the first time he heard The Band’s album, “Music From Big Pink.” It was at Stan Szelest’s house. He didn’t know what to think.
“I was too young and immature to appreciate it at the time,” he says now. “I didn’t understand what they were trying to do. Their music was so different for the time.
Holguin’s drumming was appreciated, though. He worked with most of the major Buffalo roots-oriented bands of the time, the ones that might be called Americana today. He played with Posse, the Billy Brite Band, Elmo Witherspoon, Stan & the Ravens, the Buffalo Blues Band (sometimes called the Buffalo Blues Brothers at the time) and even some disco bands – including Junction West for awhile when that band was packing the Playboy Club.
He made his living as a drummer through the ‘70s and most of the ‘80s, but also pitched in singing with most of the bands. He said he cut out some of his singing in the mid ‘80s when he lost his ability to hit some of the falsetto notes he used to reach … about the same time he gave up smoking and drinking.
Through the years, he’s gone back to school and gotten a master’s degree at the University of Buffalo, spending about 25 years as a drug and alcohol recovery counselor. But he’s always kept playing, and when he and Ron Davis teamed up to form the North Delta Duo, he had to sing
25 on their CD “Warning Signs.” There were only two of them!
Along the way, Steve Nathan invited him at one point to audition to play with Levon Helm’s band when Helm wanted a second drummer so he could come out from behind the drum set to play some stringed instruments. Holguin had other commitments at the time and was too late, though. Helm’s nephew, Terry Cagle, who was from Arkansas and actually did sound like Levon, ended up with the gig.
Holguin was invited to audition for The Weight Band, the group put together by Jim Weider, the guitarist in the latter day 1980s version of The Band, in 2016, but that didn’t work out.
It all prepared him, though, for when the Buffalo “Last Waltz” came around and the show’s music director, Doug Yeomans, contacted him. He fully appreciated the music now.
“I’m honored and grateful to be part of the incredible group of people that are the cast and production crew of the Last Waltz,” Holguin said. “I am blessed”
These days Holguin is retired from counseling, but still finds time to drum. During the pandemic, he said, he found himself enjoying being at home most weekends for the first time in decades, spending time with his wife, Susan, his four children (Jennifer, Pete, Melody and Tony) and his 12 grandchildren.
But he still likes playing … especially if the drum kit is there and set up so he doesn’t have to haul his own around. After some 55 years, experience begets some privilege … especially when you can do Levon your own way.
(This article first appeared in the 2021 Last Waltz program)