Duke Special (born Peter Wilson) is a songwriter and performer based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A piano-based songwriter with a romantic style and a warm, distinctly accented voice, he has distinctive long dreadlocks, eyeliner and outfits he describes as "hobo chic". His live performances have a theatrical style inspired by Vaudeville and music hall, and often incorporate 78s played on an old-fashioned gramophone, or sound effects from a transistor radio. He is most often accompanied by percussionist "Temperance Society" Chip Bailey, who plays cheese graters and egg whisks, a Stumpf fiddle and a Shruti box, as well as the more typical drums and cymbals. Other musicians who perform with Wilson from time to time include Paul Pilot (guitar), Réa Curran (trumpet, backing vocals, accordion), Ben Castle (clarinet, saxophone), Ben Hales (bass guitar), Gareth Williams, "Professor" Ger Eaton (keyboards), Dan Donnelly (mandoline, backing vocals) and Serge Archibald III (saxophone, "ethereal background sounds", vibes).
His albums include Adventures in Gramophone (2005), Songs from the Deep Forest (2006), both of which were nominated for the Choice Music Prize, I Never Thought This Day Would Come (2008), Little Revolutions (2009), The Silent World of Hector Mann (2010), Mother Courage and Her Children (2010), Under the Dark Cloth (2011) and Oh Pioneer (2012).
Wilson was born in Lisburn and grew up in Coleraine, Downpatrick and Holywood with his mother, father and three sisters. Wilson's grandmother, Mary Groves, taught his mother and her brothers and sisters to play the piano. This tradition of playing the piano was passed on to Wilson's three sisters and eventually to him also. He attended Down High School, Downpatrick and later Sullivan Upper School in Holywood.
After leaving school and a brief stint with a community arts project in Swindon, England he returned home and played piano for Brian Houston (a Belfast songwriter influenced by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash and Elvis) under whom Wilson apprenticed, picking up a hunger for performing and a knack of winning over an audience in the process. Several band mutations on the musical journey followed and saw Wilson front other acts composed of Belfast musicians but he was yet to hit his stride.
He currently resides in Belfast.
In 2002 he went solo, adopting the name Duke Special, and began building up a following as a live performer. He released three EPs on Medieval Haircut Records, the first two of which, Lucky Me and My Villain Heart, were collected as an album, Adventures in Gramophone, released by Hag Records in 2005. The album was nominated for the 2006 Choice Music Prize. In 2006 he signed to V2 Records and released a second album, Songs from the Deep Forest. He featured on Later... with Jools Holland alongside Amy Winehouse and John Legend the following November and the album was nominated for the 2007 Choice Music Prize. Duke Special was nominated for three 2007 Meteor Music Awards, for best Irish male, best newcomer, and best album for Songs from the Deep Forest. In 2007 he headlined a concert with the Ulster Orchestra at Belfast's Waterfront Hall, "Orchestral Manoevres". The concert was supported by Julie Feeney and Foy Vance, who sang on "This Could Be My Last Day". 2007 also saw him perform at Greenbelt festival, Glastonbury, Guilfest, Summer Sundae, Haldern Festival and the Electric Picnic. In 2007 he performed as part of the BBC Electric Proms, supporting former Kinks lead singer Ray Davies.
Duke Special's third album, I Never Thought This Day Would Come, was released in Ireland in October 2008 on Universal, who had acquired V2 in 2007. In August 2008 he appeared in the Northern Ireland children's television show Sesame Tree with his band, having also written the theme music for the show. Later in 2008 he won the Meteor Music Award for Best Irish Male.
In 2009 he played on the O2 stage at Oxegen and between September and December 2009 appeared on stage at the Royal National Theatre in London as part of a new production of Bertolt Brecht's play Mother Courage and Her Children, for which he wrote music for a number of songs. The production was directed by Deborah Warner and starred Fiona Shaw in the title role. In January 2010 he launched a campaign on Pledge Music (see Fan-funded music) whereby fans pledged for items to help fund the promotion and touring of his triple CD, The Stage, A Book & The Silver Screen (comprising Mother Courage and Her Children, The Silent World of Hector Mann and Huckleberry Finn).
On 11 September 2010 Duke Special played at the Last Night of the Proms for the BBC at Hillsborough Castle. In January 2011 he presented a documentary on the life and songs of Belfast's Ruby Murray and released Duke Special Sings the Songs of Ruby Murray. and in March 2011 performed songs based on the photographs of Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Paul Strand at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. These songs were subsequently released in November 2011 as the album Under the Dark Cloth performed alongside The RTÉ Concert Orchestra, conducted by David Brophy, with leader Joanne Quigley and arranged for orchestra by Michael Keeney.
In July 2012 Duke Special released Oh Pioneer on his own label, Adventures in Gramophone, with the help of digital distributor AWAL. It was featured on iTunes, reaching No. 3 on the Singer / Songwriter chart in Ireland and No. 7 in the UK. He appeared at Camp Bestival, performing live sets in both and also debuting as a 78rpm record DJ, as a guest of the Shellac Collective.
In 2013 he collaborated with Celtic supergroup Clannad, appearing on the album Nádúr and performing on Irish television chat show The Late Late Show and on Terry Wogan's BBC Radio 3 show. On Friday 6 December 2013 he finished a year-long residency of six concerts at Belfast's Empire Hall with 'A Victorian Christmas', performing Christmas songs solo with featured guests.