Dear Friends of Pete Anderson…  I want to thank all of my Latvian friends who have contacted me today to inform me of the sad, sad news of Pete Anderson’s passing.   And to you friends and admirers of Pete in America, with great sadness, I am now sharing the news with you that our old Rockabilly friend, who helped pioneer Soviet and Latvian Rock & Roll while inspiring his country’s independence movement, has passed away after a three year hard-fought battle with cancer.

As most of you are aware, Pete is a central figure in our just completed film FREE TO ROCK (www.freetorockmovie.com), directed by 4 time Emmy Award winning filmmaker Jim Brown and narrated by Kiefer Sutherland.  The film explores the influences and effects caused by the soft power of Rock & Roll music from the West during the Cold War, and how it contributed to the collapse of the communist system and the Soviet Empire.

In the film, we have governmental leaders, such as Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter, Latvia’s president Vike-Freiberga, NATO’s Deputy Secretary General Vershbow, Latvian Ambassador Ojar Kalnins, Hungarian Ambassador Andras Simonyi and former KGB General Oleg Kalugin, all speaking in support of this thesis….. but it is the pioneer rockers, like Pete Anderson, who, in his case, began performing Rock & Roll in public in 1959 and had fought a long brutal battle with the KGB for more than thirty years, that allows the viewer of the film to feel the real, compelling, believable and personal storylines of the Iron Curtain rockers from their own voices.

 

Happily, Pete’s now in Rock & Roll Heaven with his heroes, Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Ricky Nelson, Eddie Cochrane, Gene Vincent, Louie Prima, and all of the less publicized Black artists who created the genre – most of whom are unknown to us, but Pete knew and revered as Gods.

He could passionately tell you their entire life stories, in addition to the name, number and label of each of their record releases:  Pioneers, such as Louie Jordan, Big Joe Turner, Wynonie Harris, Wild Bill Moore, Jackie Brentson with Ike Turner, and Goree Carter.  I can just see him how having a ball, and being warmly welcomed and accepted by his mentors as a true member of their band!

Thankfully, during Pete’s days with us on earth, he not only received adulation from hundreds of thousands of fans and accolades in Europe for his performances and recordings, but he was also honored in Nashville seven years ago at the International Rockabilly Convention, with the “Best Rockabilly Album of the Year.”

What his fans outside of Latvia may not have known is that Pete is also considered a real Hero of his country’s liberation.

He had been honored by Latvia with its highest governmental honors, not only for his contributions to the arts, but for his decades-long fight against the communist system and the KGB during the Cold War — in his steadfast determination to preserve the right to sing and perform the music he loved, while in the process, inspiring the youth of Latvia to rebel against the totalitarian system in their fight for Independence and liberation from the Soviet Union.

His face and name are found on a Latvian Postage Stamp, and he was awarded the highest civilian honor his country can bestow on a citizen, the Order of the Three Stars.

The last time Pete ever performed was during a series of events in Riga, Latvia last March, for the Latvian screening of FREE TO ROCK.  My co-producer/partner Nick Binkley (with whom I began the project in Latvia 10 ½ years ago), and I paid a visit to Pete and his beloved wife and partner Anna at their new home outside of Riga the day before the events.

It was painful for him to walk and he couldn’t use his left arm and shoulder which surrounded the tennis ball size tumor in the left side of his chest.  He was grimacing with severe pain when just making the smallest of movements or talking. Yet, despite the pain, he wanted us to take a tour of the home he had built.   He took us upstairs to his office, where he proudly showed us his governmental awards, in addition to the first album he was ever allowed to record after his many years of KGB induced exile from Rock & Roll.

This album, which the State monopoly record label Melodiya put out after Gorby came to power, was full of Rock & Roll classics.  Melodiya later told him it had sold 10 million copies…. but of course, it is the law that they don’t pay royalties to the artist (Pete) or to the publishers/ songwriters of the foreign songs.    Pete then wanted us to walk outside in the cold air with him, to see his garage where he worked on his cars.   We immediately noticed that his prized 1959 antique, mint condition red Cadillac, wasn’t there.  He smiled and explained that it was being kept in a temperature regulated storage garage in town.

Once back in his living room, and sitting down for some tea, I gingerly asked Pete how he would be able to perform the next night after the screening considering his physical condition?  He told us that he planned to take a lot of pain killers and only be on stage for half the songs.   He continued, saying that he wouldn’t play the guitar — because he wasn’t able to hold it or strum it anymore, and that he would let the kids perform the rest of the show without him on stage.

He then made Nick and I promise that we wouldn’t tell anyone of his condition, for fear that promoters would stop offering him concerts.   His wife Anna, a career chemist, had left her job some years back to become an integral part of the band – Pete Anderson & The Swamp Shakers, as the beautiful, sexy and very talented upright bass performer.  As she was no longer earning a living as a chemist, Pete was very concerned about the family finances and keeping their new home if the band wasn’t working.   But he was most worried about leaving Anna a mountain of debts because of his illness and the minimal costs of treatment paid by his health insurance.

 

Upon walking out of their home to the car in stunned silence, Nick and I looked at each other in disbelief – certain that he would not even be able to mount the stage for the concert.  However, later that evening, Pete met us at the lovely residence of United States Charge d’Affaires of the U.S.

Embassy (and acting Ambassador) Sharon Hudson-Dean and her husband, for a wonderful homey dinner which included the Latvian Minister of Culture Dace Melbarde, our old friend Ojars Kalnins, who is the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Latvian Parliament, Ieva Morica (Latvian Executive Director of the Foundation for an Open Society), Dita Rietuma (Director of the National Film Center of Latvia), Paul Raudseps (noted Latvian cultural journalist) and Kathy Giles-Diaz of the U.S. Embassy.   Though Pete was subdued that evening (with many pain killers), he was able to show no signs of illness to the attending guests.

 

The following night at the screening, which the government presented in their historic Splendid Place Theatre, Pete sat beside me.   During the speeches preceding the film by Cultural Minister Melbarde, Sharon Hudson-Dean and Ieva Morica,  I could hear Pete moaning with pain in his seat.  Yet, when the film finished, he got up and mounted the stairs to the stage with Nick, Ojars, and I, and participated in our panel discussion with Paul Raudseps.

No one in the capacity overflowed theatre left during the 30 minute panel discussion.  Pete amazingly appeared fine, and spoke eloquently about the urgent need for cultural diplomacy more today and ever, while noting that 80,000 Russian troops were positioned on their border while the U.S. Navy had just unloaded hundreds of Marines and tanks at the port Riga to begin maneuvers with the Latvian military.   After the panel, Pete proceeded to join us at the reception upstairs in the theatre.  He said hello to everyone, then made an early exit so that he and his band could do a sound check for the concert.

 

After the reception, Nick and I walked with our new friend Ieva Morica over to the venue where he was scheduled to perform.  We ordered some drinks and waited.   Quite a bit of time passed while we were drinking and socializing.

No one knew of Pete’s condition, but Nick and I were concerned when it was 20 minutes past the time when the band was supposed to play… and we still hadn’t seen him.  Then, all of sudden, Pete jumped on the stage with the guitar around his neck, and his wife and band mates following him.  It was like he was 40 years old and full of vim and vinegar.

He stormed through twenty songs in the ensuing 90 minutes, singing and playing his guitar with the physically demonstrative verve of a young Elvis – as if it would be his last performance ever!  The wild crowd demanded several long encores, which culminated with Pete jumping on top of the side of the upright bass. now prone on the floor (and being played by his wife Anna, also prone on the floor and strumming).

As the band played their thunderous last chord, Pete threw his arms in the air in a triumphant smile and expression of victory.   Without a doubt it was the best performance Nick and I had ever seen him give.   Fatefully, it would be Pete’s last performance.

 
After the concert, Nick and I went to the dressing room to congratulate the group and give our goodbye hugs to Pete and Anna before we flew back to the States.  Though we didn’t show our feelings, Nick and I both walked out of the dressing room knowing that it was the end of a chapter in our lives, and that it would probably be the last time we would ever see our old friend. . . . .
 
Eventually, as Pete’s condition worsened and it became obvious that he could no longer perform,  he agreed to let the word out to the Latvian press and media — that he needed urgent funds to gain modern treatment from a hospital in Munich.  Moneys quickly flowed in and he and Anna were soon off to Munich.   Whenever possible, Anna and Swamp Shakers, without Pete, still satisfied the old bookings on the schedule.
 

Five days ago, I emailed and sent a Facebook note to Pete.  He hadn’t communicated with anyone since mid-November, when he wrote on his Facebook page that he would continue his painful radiation treatments, and then receive an analysis of the treatments in Munich on January 15th. I hoped to learn what the doctors had told him.

I can only begin to imagine the pain and difficulty Pete underwent these past three years, since he first underwent surgery for abdominal cancer, followed soon thereafter with spinal surgery for his deteriorated vertebrae, then another abdominal cancer surgery six months later.   And lastly, only to learn a few months later that he had terminal lung cancer.

 
His son Glen, who communicated with me today, said that Pete passed before they received news of the analysis.  Thankfully, Glen noted that Pete died peacefully in his sleep last night.
 
RECALLING THE FIRST FILMING OF FREE TO ROCK – JUNE 2005. . . .
 

When Nick, Valery Saifudinov and I flew to Riga in June 2005 to explore the story of Rock & Roll’s contribution to the dissolution of the communist system in Europe, we knew it would be very difficult — maybe impossible – to prove a thesis that rock music and its culture truly had been a significant contributing factor to the collapse of the system.  Valery was a pioneer Soviet rocker.   In the book, BACK IN THE USSR, he is credited with forming the first Soviet rock band.

For the past twenty years, Valery runs a recording studio with Nick in San Diego.  He would be our guide, and translator when needed, and navigate us through the people, culture and places in Latvia where we were going to begin filming and making our exploration.  Nick had heard all of Valery’s stories of trying to perform Rock & Roll — a forbidden music in the USSR — back in the `50s – 70s; and I had just completed weeks of research on the situation of Rock vs. the Kremlin during that period of time in the USSR.

We thought there was a good possibility that we would be able to satisfy ourselves that the thesis was sound.  But, we knew that in order to convince the world – and its academics and political leaders, we would have to document overwhelming evidence and gain support from major voices to make it accepted by the masses.   If we couldn’t gain some hard evidence during this trip, we would chalk it off as a fun,  eleven day adventure

The first person Valery wanted us to interview, was his childhood friend Pete Anderson, who along with Valery, pioneered rock music in Latvia.   Latvia was the first Soviet republic to be infected with the rock virus, and  over the next decade, it would spread uncontrollably to Moscow and beyond.
 

Nick and I came with our cameraman Raivo to Pete Anderson’s home, and began the interview.   We were riveted to our seats as Pete, surrounded by posters of Ricky Nelson, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis,  started telling us his life story.

Since performing Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” with a college jazz band in 1959, he endured twelve arrests by the KGB over the next fifteen years.  In 1966, Pete and his band Melody Makers were about to make the first official rock concert in the USSR, at the 2,000 seat Planetarium Theatre in Riga (which formerly had been the Cathedral prior to Soviet occupation).

Pete’s repertoire was classic `50s rock:  Elvis, Fats Domino, Ricky Nelson, Little Richard, Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, et al.   He definitely wasn’t singing political protest music.  On the day of the concert, the government cancelled the show – fearful of Rock & Roll’s influence on the youth.   Pete and his band mates then took their acoustic instruments, mounted the steps outside the Planetarium and led 2,000 Riga teenagers in the first mass protest demonstration against the government in the history of the Soviet Union!

The teenagers had made large signs for the protest that read ‘FREE THE GUITAR!’  During his long struggle with the KGB, they threatened Pete with the lives of his children, and beat him nearly to death, resulting in two weeks in the hospital fighting for his life.   With his family’s life in peril, he had to stop his life’s passion for fourteen long years, until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power.

 

During that first interview with Pete, Nick and I immediately realized that if the Kremlin felt so threatened by a guy in Latvia singing Ricky Nelson and Fats Domino songs that they would go to such extreme lengths to stop him, for fear that he would influence the Soviet youth with the rock virus, then we knew we had a powerful story in our hands…..a story that needed to be told.

Later that day, Pete called the home phone of one of his ardent fans – the former Latvian Defense Minister, and asked if he could arrange for us to film in the former KGB dungeons that had been chained shut and not been opened to the public since the Soviets left in the middle of the night in 1991!  Then, via the help of another of Pete’s friends, Roland Blezurs, we were coordinating film interviews with President Vike-Freiberga and with Ojars Kalnins, former Latvian Ambassador to the United States.

Pete would then put us in touch with his friend, John McEuen, founder of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the first American rock band to tour the USSR.   Pete and John secretly became friends during that 1977 tour.  As Pete was an outlawed rocker, it required clandestine meetings in Latvia for them to get to know each other and become friends.

And throughout the Cold War, Pete and John maintained communications – even though most of Pete’s letters were confiscated by the KGB and never reached John.   In 2011, we flew Pete to Kansas, where he was reunited with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on stage, which we filmed and is documented in FREE TO ROCK.

 
Pete Anderson gave us the meat, the inspiration, passion and boost to go on and make FREE TO ROCK – a difficult, complex and costly film that took 10 ½ long years to complete.   It certainly became a labor of love.  And, in the process, Pete became a dear friend.
 
Farewell old friend.   May you freely play the music you love forever and ever.   Your music will never die, and the joy, passion and adventure you brought to our lives will always be with us.
 
Bless you Pete.
 
We Love You!
 
Doug and Nick