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Remembering Pinetop Perkins (1913-2011)

By BILL FRISKICS-WARREN

Pinetop Perkins, the boogie-woogie piano player who worked in Muddy Waters’s last great band and was among the last surviving members of the first generation of Delta bluesmen, died on Monday at his home in Austin, Tex. He was 97.

His death was confirmed by Hugh Southard, his agent for the last 15 years.

From his days in the groups of Waters and the slide guitarist Robert Nighthawk to the vigorous solo career he fashioned over the last 20 years, Mr. Perkins’s accomplishments were numerous and considerable. His longevity as a performer was remarkable — all the more so considering his fondness for cigarettes and alcohol; by his own account he began smoking at age 9 and didn’t quit drinking until he was 82. Few people working in any popular art form have been as prolific in the ninth and tenth decades of their lives.

A sideman for most of his career, Mr. Perkins did not release an album under his own name until his 75th year. From then until his death he made more than a dozen records on which he was the leader. His 2008 album, “Pinetop Perkins & Friends” (Telarc), included contributions from admirers like B. B. King and Eric Clapton. His last album, released in 2010, was “Joined at the Hip” (Telarc), a collaboration with the harmonica player Willie Big Eyes Smith.

Mr. Perkins’s durability was born of the resilience and self-reliance he developed as a child growing up on a plantation in Honey Island, Miss., in the years leading up to the Great Depression '

“I grew up hard,” he said in a 2008 interview with No Depression, the American roots music magazine. “I picked cotton and plowed with the mule and fixed the cars and played with the guitar and the piano.”

“What I learned I learned on my own,” he continued. “I didn’t have much school. Three years.”

The author Robert Gordon, in his book “Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters wrote that Mr. Perkins “learned to play in the same school as Muddy — a cotton field, where the conjugation was done with a hoe and the school lunch was a fish sandwich and homemade whiskey.”

Originally a guitarist, Mr. Perkins concentrated exclusively on the piano after an incident, in 1943, in which a dancer at a juke joint attacked him with a knife, severing the tendons in his left arm. The injury left him unable to hold a guitar or manage its fretboard.

In 1943 Mr. Perkins moved to Helena, Ark., to work with Nighthawk. He later joined Sonny Boy Williamson’s King Biscuit Boys, before moving on to the band of the slide guitarist Earl Hooker. He also appeared on the recordings that Nighthawk made for the Chess label and that Hooker made for Sun in the 1950s. It was for Sun, in 1953, that he cut his first version of “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie,” the song that furnished him with his nickname and became his signature number. He appropriated the tune from the repertory of the barrelhouse piano player Clarence Smith, who was also known as Pinetop.

Mr. Perkins has also been credited with teaching Ike Turner how to play the piano. Rock and pop pianists like Elton John , Billy Joel and Gregg Allman have said they were influenced by his exuberant, down-home style of playing.

Joe Willie Perkins was born on July 7, 1913, in Belzoni, Miss. His parents separated when he was 6. Mr. Perkins, who dropped out of school after the third grade, taught himself the rudiments of blues guitar on a homemade instrument called a diddley bow: a length of wire stretched between nails driven into a wall. He began entertaining at dances and house parties at age 10 and soon learned to play the piano as well. While still in his teens he left Mississippi and traveled to Chicago.

He eventually returned to the Delta, where he drove a tractor in the cotton fields, but he again made Chicago his home in the late ’50s. He wasn’t very active as musician there, though, until Hooker enlisted him to appear on an album he was making for Arhoolie Records in 1968. When the pianist Otis Spann left Waters’s band the next year, Mr. Perkins, whose lean gutbucket style contrasted with Spann’s more florid playing, was recruited to replace him.

“I played more of a bluesy type than Spann did,” he told Mr. Gordon. “I taught myself off records, Memphis Slim, them old piano players, then added to it. Yeah, hard and loud, beat it to pieces.”

Mr. Perkins worked for Waters for more than a decade, appearing on his acclaimed comeback albums of the late ’70s and performing with him at, among other shows, the Band’s celebrated final concert in 1976, which was billed as “The Last Waltz.”

Mr. Perkins and other members of the Waters group left and formed the Legendary Blues Band in 1980. Mr. Perkins sang and played piano on that ensemble’s records before leaving, in the late ’80s, to concentrate on his solo career.

In 2000 he received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts. He was given a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 2005 and won a Grammy in 2008 for the album “Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas” (Blue Shoe Project), a collaboration with his contemporaries Henry Townsend, Robert Lockwood Jr. and Honeyboy Edwards. “Born in the Honey,” a documentary about Mr. Perkins’s life, was released in 2007.

Mr. Southard, his agent, said Mr. Perkins had no known survivors.

“What little family I got is in Mississippi,” Mr. Perkins said in an interview posted on his Web site, pinetopperkins.com . “A whole lot of them died before I left, and my sister died a long time ago, before my mama did. I had a bunch of friends and people in Chicago, but no family.”



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