Blue Pinetop

Portrait by Chicago’s Steve Azzato.

Joseph Bob “Pinetop” Perkins was America’s longest living bluesman.

Mr. Perkins died of cardiac arrest Monday at his home in Austin, Tx. He was 97 years old.

Mr. Perkins replaced Otis Spann in Muddy Waters band–when he was 56 years old. Mr. Perkins also played guitar on Sonny Boy Williamson’s mystical King Biscuit Flour Hour radio program on KFFA in Helena, Ark. He played background music to cockfights and recorded with Chris and Mick Jagger. He won his second Grammy this year for Best Traditional Blues Album for “Joined at the Hip,” which he recorded with former Waters drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith.

Mr. Perkins became the oldest person to win a Grammy award. (Edging out George Burns).

“He was happy about the Grammy but he was happiest on playing on somebody’s bandstand,” Smith said Monday from his Chicago home. “The Grammy was icing on the cake……..

The Blues Brothers discovered Mr. Perkins in 1980. He had a cameo arguing with John Lee Hooker in front of a soul food cafe.

Mr. Perkins had a story for every key on the piano.

He lived on the South Side of Chicago for 40 years with his wife Sarah. After Sarah died in 1996, Mr. Perkins claimed his stepchildren took advantage of him. He moved to LaPorte, Ind.

“My steps started runnin’,” he told me in a 2000 interview at Buck’s Workingman’s Pub in La Porte, where he often sat in. “Every time I went on the road they’d take something. My tools. My guns. A portable CD player (given to him by Ike Turner.) Those kids could steal all the sweetening out of a gingersnap–and not break the crust.”

In 2004 he was driving his 1983 baby blue Oldsmobile station wagon when the car was hit by a train in LaPorte. Mr. Perkins, then 91, was not seriously hurt. He relocated to Austin in 2005.

“Pinetop’s career spanned from the 1920s until now,” said Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer who recorded Mr. Perkins in 1978 for his Living Chicago Blues Series. It was Mr. Perkins first session as a bandleader. Iglauer said, “Pinetop learned when the piano was the whole band, when the left hand had to be there to keep the dancers moving and the right hand was the melody and conversation hand. Some younger players don’t have occasion to work solo like that. Pinetop just didn’t play parts–he carried on a conversation with the piano.”

Mr. Perkins was born in 1913 in Belzoni, Miss. He was born as Joseph Bob Perkins, but the family dog was also named Bob. The family figured it was easier to change their son’s name than the dog’s, so Mr. Perkins became Joe Willie.

Mr. Perkins’ grandmother Mary Walton was a black Creek Indian, and his father, Sandy Perkins, was a Baptist preacher. Perkins’ mother bought him his first cigarette when he was 10. Even in the early 2000s Perkins still smoked a pack of cigarettes a day.

The Mississippi sharecropper’s shack in which Mr. Perkins was born has been relocated to the Shack Up-Inn at the Hopson Plantation outside of Clarksdale, Miss. While growing up Mr. Perkins worked in the shop on the plantation. The Shack Up Inn now hosts an annual Pinetop Perkins Festival. (Also check out this blog’s March 29, 2007 post on the Shack Up Inn).

Mr. Perkins picked up his nickname around 1950. Mr. Perkins recalled hearing piano player (Clarence) “Pinetop’ Slim do “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie.”

” I redid the song in 1951 for Sun Records (with slide guitarist Earl Hooker in Memphis),” Mr. Perkins recalled in 2000. “They’ve called me Pinetop ever since.”

Mr. Perkins listened to blues and jazz ’78s from his parent’s collection. He started his musical journey as a guitarist.

A 1940s run-in with a dancing girl from the High Brown Follies changed his life. After a midnight appearance on the King Biscuit Flour Hour, Mr. Perkins was drinking in a local bar. The dancing girl adjourned to the bathroom. The dancer’s husband rolled a 55-gallon barrel of coal ashes in front of the bathroom door.

“When she finally got out, she leaned on into me with a big knife,” Mr. Perkins said in 2000. ” I was the first thing she saw.”

He rolled up his sleeve and revealed a three-inch scar halfway up his left arm. The blade sliced a muscle in the arm and prevented Mr. Perkins from properly fretting a guitar.

Within a year of the accident, Mr. Perkins was playing barrel house piano behind B.B. King and singer-slide guitarist Robert Nighthawk.

Nighthawk brought Mr. Perkins from Helena to Chicago, where they cut their chops on Maxwell Street. Nighthawk turned Mr. Perkins over to his protege’, electric slide guitarist Earl Hooker. When he moved to Chicago in 1958, Mr. Perkins lived with Earl Hooker’s mother for a year.

After Spann left Muddy Waters in 1969 Waters contacted Mr. Perkins. Mr. Perkins’ style differed from Spann’s, in that he played with more rolls and greater harmony, filling in the spaces between Muddy’s jagged guitar riffs and mannish vocals. “I knew Muddy’s records,” Perkins said. “So I knew what he was going to do. I didn’t play too much piano, just good harmony. Otis played a whole lot of piano.”

Mr. Perkins appeared on the records that signified Waters’ rebirth: 1977’s “Hard Again,” which featured Johnny Winter and included the rollicking “The Blues Had a Baby and They Named It Rock & Roll (No. 2)”; 1978’s “I’m Ready,” which included one of the final collaborations of Waters, Mr. Perkins, guitarist Jimmy Rogers and harpist Big Walter Horton, and 1981’s “King Bee.” Waters’ band broke up after “King Bee.” Waters died in 1983.

In 2008 Mr. Perkins won a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album for “Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live In Dallas” with Henry James Townsend (who died in 2006 at age 96), Robert Lockwood Jr, (who died in 2006 at age 91) and David “Honeyboy” Edwards (who turns 96 in June). He was also a member of the Blues Hall of Fame.

“He came from the old school,” Smith said Monday. “You build yourself up around your leader. He did his best to keep his music forward and to make whomever you are playing with sound the best you can. If you do that you know you sound good.”

Smith’s son Javik took care of Mr. Perkins in Austin. Smith spoke to his musical compatriot a couple of days ago. “He was in good spirits,” Smith said. “He was the oldest living bluesman. Its the music that keeps you alive.”

Services are pending.

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