The last member of an influential era of blues music has died. Pianist Pinetop Perkins was 97 years old when he suffered cardiac arrest at his home in Austin, Texas. He was one of the oldest performers of the Delta blues, and the oldest person to receive a Grammy award, just this past February.
Pinetop Perkins [was] one of the last great Mississippi bluesmen still performing. He began playing blues in the late 1920s, and is widely regarded as one of the best – and certainly most enduring – blues pianists. He has forged a style that has influenced three generations of piano players, and continues to be the yardstick by which great blues pianists are measured.
Born Willie Perkins in Belzoni, Mississippi in 1913, Pinetop started out playing guitar and piano at house parties and honky-tonks, but dropped the guitar in the 1940s after sustaining a serious injury in his left arm. He worked primarily in the Mississippi Delta throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, spending three years with Sonny Boy Williamson on the King Biscuit Time radio show on KFFA in Helena, Arkansas. Pinetop also toured extensively with slide guitar player Robert Nighthawk and backed him on an early Chess session. After briefly working with B.B. King in Memphis, Perkins barnstormed the South with Earl Hooker during the early ‘50s. The pair completed a session for Sam Phillips’ famous Sun Records in 1953. It was at this session that he recorded his version of “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie,” a song originally written and recorded by pianist Clarence “Pinetop” Smith – the influential blues pianist who had died from a gunshot wound at age 24 in 1929. Although referred to as “Pinetop” when he played on King Biscuit in the 40s, it was his sensational version of this song that secured his lifelong nickname.
If you came of age in the Chicago area in the 1970s, there’s a good chance you knew who Pinetop Perkins was: He was part of that legendary blues scene that included the great Muddy Waters – a Chicago icon if ever there was one; a guy so influential the Rolling Stones took their name from one of his songs – along with other giants like Hound Dog Taylor, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon. These are the guys who essentially invented rock ’n roll – not Elvis Presley or Buddy Holly, and not even Chuck Berry, although he was obviously an early innovator.
No, as Muddy Waters said: The blues had a baby and they named it rock ’n roll.
It was guys like Muddy Waters and Pinetop Perkins who left the Delta, came to Chicago, plugged in their guitars and turned it up – and thus taught the world to rock. Without those great Chicago blues artists, there would’ve been no Eric Clapton or Rolling Stones – not to mention John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, which spawned Cream, Fleetwood Mac (yes, few people today remember, but Fleetwood Mac began as a Chicago blues outfit), and the Yardbirds, which, in turn spawned the Jeff Beck Group (of which Rod Stewart was an original member), and, ultimately … (shudder) Led Zeppelin. (Don’t get me started on Led Zeppelin.) So, basically, other than the Beatles, almost all other rock ’n roll of the 1960s and 1970s owes its very existence to Chicago blues.
And the thing is: If you were a teenager in Chicago in the 1970s, you knew this. This is what gave us pride in our city – not the godawful Cubs, or the more or less equally godawful White Sox, and not the Bears, who were a mere shadow of their former greatness; and certainly not the city’s politics or its long sad history of racial segregation and divisiveness. It was the music of Chicago that changed the damn world.
Unfortunately, Pinetop was pretty much the last of that group, and now that he’s gone, the music world will never be the same.
So, really, all you can do is let the music do the talking.
Here’s Pinetop playing with Muddy Waters:
And here’s Pinetop and his band playing “Whiskey-Headed Woman”:
Good God, that’s freaking awesome. You will be missed, Mr. Perkins. The world owes you.
© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.