By Devon Wendell
The death of Joseph William “Pinetop” Perkins on Monday March 21, 2011 marks the end of an era of true, original Mississippi Delta blues pianists. Perkins was born in Belzoni, Mississippi and was nicknamed “Pinetop” for his highly regarded renderings of Pinetop Smith’s 1928 classic Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie. Eventually, he recorded it himself at Sam Philip’s Sun Records studio in Memphis in the early 1950s.
Perkins’ professional career started on the KFFA radio show of the great blues singer and slide guitarist Robert Nighthawk, out of Helena, Arkansas. He then switched to harmonica pioneer Sonny Boy Williamson’s more popular show “King Biscuit Time,” which debuted such legends as B.B. King, Robert Lockwood Jr., Elmore James, and Perkins’ young piano student Ike Turner.
Upon learning about the success of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, helped along by the coaxing of long time collaborator and guitar genius Earl Hooker, Perkins moved to Chicago in 1968. When Waters’ longtime pianist Otis Spann quit Muddy’s group in 1969, Perkins stepped in as his replacement. He stayed with him until the late ‘70s when he and Waters’ drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith formed The Legendary Blues Band, with Louis Myers (harmonica/guitar), Calvin “Fuzz” Jones, bass, and Jerry Portnoy on harmonica.
At a time when most blues pianists were copying the styles of Spann, Little Johnny Jones, and Big Maceo Merriweather, Perkins asserted his own aggressive barrelhouse style.
He toured and recorded throughout the ‘90s with Chicago blues greats Hubert Sumlin and Jimmy Rogers. As the blues made a semi-mainstream comeback in the early ‘90s, Pinetop finally started getting the worldwide recognition he had deserved for so many decades. His style was capable of complimenting anyone’s music and he became sought after by blues and rock musicians alike.
Despite a serious accident in 2004 in which a train hit his car, Perkins – 91 years old — continued recording and touring.
To celebrate his 95th birthday, Pinetop recorded Pinetop Perkins And Friends (Telarc), a well crafted collaboration with artists whose lives Perkins had influenced, including B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Kim Wilson, Willie Kent, Jimmy Vaughan, and many more. That same year, he won a Grammy for best traditional blues album for his recording Last Of The Great Mississippi Bluesmen: Live In Dallas With Henry James Townsend, Robert Lockwood Jr., and Honeyboy Edwards (The Blue Shoe Project).
Seeming to get better with age, Perkins became the oldest ever Grammy winner when he won another award at the age of 97 for Joined At the Hip, with his old partner Willie “Big Eyes” Smith.
Artists from Dr. John to Marcia Ball have sung Pinetop’s praises. Ball stated “Pinetop plays in his ‘90s the way I and most people wish they were playing in their prime 40s, having learned everything they could right at the peak of their power.”
Perkins was also a humble gentleman. I had the honor of sitting in with Pinetop at the now defunct Mondo Cane blues bar in NYC in 1993. He walked into the club, shook hands with the house-band members, sat down at the piano and started playing with a kind of energy I had never experienced before or since.
When he eventually stopped to take a break and a shot of gin, I approached him with my guitar, asking if I could play with him, and he replied with a smile, “Well if you can be good to it, then let’s go.” I surely hope I was at least good enough to it for him. I remember after several hours of playing pure blues, he waved his black hat at me, patted me on the back and left.
My life has never been the same since. He was gracious enough to let me, a young white blues lover from Brooklyn, play with him on Blues Everywhere I Go and Eddie Boyd’s Done Got Lonesome Here. I was in such awe and terror at the same time. I worshiped this man and owned all of his records.
Perkins died at his home in Austin, Texas on Monday, March 21st, 2011. He was 97.