With the death of Joseph William “Pinetop” Perkins, blues music has lost one of its truly enduring characters. The Mississippi-born pianist, who died in his Texas home on Monday at the age of 97, leaves behind an impressive musical legacy that stretches back to the mid-1920s. To cast even a fleeting eye across his career is to absorb a wealth of the history of the blues. To have heard his music, however, is to have known a master at work.
In his early days, Perkins was an able guitarist as well as pianist having been introduced to the former at the age of 10. Around this same time, he left school and took a series of jobs on Mississippi cotton plantations. According to Perkins, it was through a Belzoni based man named Scott Morris that he made the transition from guitar to piano. Having attained a good understanding of the notes of the guitar, Morris’s guidance allowed Perkins to construct and tune his own piano.
Beginning his association with the blues circuit in the mid-1920s, he counted Robert Johnson among his contemporaries. A meeting with Robert Nighthawk in the 1930s would lead to recurring work on KFFA Radio in Arkansas, which in turn would introduce him to Sonny Boy Williamson. With the latter, he would spend much of the 1940s touring as a pianist for the King Biscuit Entertainers.
In 1942, Perkins was an unfortunate victim of circumstance in the Dreamland Cafe, Arkansas when a troubled chorus girl stabbed him and severed tendons in his left arm. This injury rendered him unable to continue playing guitar although by his own admission he had been largely piano-focused since 1929.
Perkins was not the first to bear the “Pinetop” moniker. Although known under the alias for much of his career, he acknowledged that it was due to his rendition of “Pinetop Boogie Woogie” - first recorded by Clarence Smith in 1928 - that the nickname became ingrained. Perkins recorded the song at Sam Phillips’s studio in Memphis in 1953.
Despite taking part in numerous recording sessions in the 1950s and 1960s - as well as a term as pianist for Muddy Waters between 1969 and 1980 - it would not be until 1988 that Perkins would record a solo album. However, his output from then on was nothing short of prodigious; almost unthinkable for someone of his age.
His most recent release, “Joined at the Hip” (a collaboration with Willie “Big Eyes” Smith), would earn them a Grammy Award in 2011 for Best Traditional Blues Album. In achieving this accolade, Perkins became the oldest recipient of a Grammy. Perkins continued to tour into his nineties and had several concerts scheduled at the time of his death.
[To add a personal note, I saw Pinetop Perkins play live a few years back at the Maryport Festival. I still remember a sharp dressed old man being helped on to the stage only to watch him transform under the spotlights into a young man who would live forever fuelled by the applause that his vibrant performance so richly deserved. Magical. – Ed]