Peterson was born November 4, 1937 in Russell County, Alabama. Peterson was strongly influenced by gospel music in the rural area he grew up in, and he began singing in church as a child. Thanks to his father's juke joint, he was exposed to blues at an early age, and later followed in his footsteps in upstate New York. After leaving home at age 14, he headed to Gary, Indiana, where he sang with his friend John Scott. While still a teen, he began playing guitar, entirely self-taught. Peterson cited musicians like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf (Chester Burnett), Jimmy Reed, and B.B. King as his early role models. After moving to Buffalo in 1955, he continued playing with various area blues bands, and ten years later he opened his own blues club.
In 1970, Peterson recorded his first album, The Father, the Son, the Blues on the Perception/Today label. While he ran his blues club at night, he supplemented his income by running a used-car lot during the day. Peterson's debut album was produced and co-written with Willie Dixon, and it featured a then-five-year-old Lucky Peterson on keyboards. Peterson followed it up with Tryin' to Keep the Blues Alive a few years later. Peterson's other albums included Rough and Ready and Too Many Knots for the Kingsnake and Ichiban labels in 1990 and 1991, respectively.
The album that put Peterson back on the road as a national touring act was 1995's Don't Let the Devil Ride for the Jackson, Mississippi-based Waldoxy Records. Throughout the '90s and up to the mid-2000s, Peterson was also an active live presence on the Tampa, Florida blues scene, and the 2000s also saw Peterson record another duo album with son Lucky, 2004's If You Can't Fix It on the JSP label. Peterson returned to Alabama in the mid-2000s, and died of a heart attack there on December 12, 2010. A master showman who learned from the best and knew how to work an audience, James Peterson left a legacy not only as an accomplished blues guitarist, but also as a crafty songwriter endowed with a deep, gospel-drenched singing style. ~ Richard Skelly