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Delta Born Blues Legend Pinetop Perkins Dies at 97

Posted: Mar 22, 2011

Grammy award winning blues pianist Pinetop Perkins died yesterday, March 21, of cardiac arrest at the age of 97. Perkins, whose real first name was Willie, was born in 1913 in Belzoni, MS, and began touring in the 1920s. In the 1950s, Perkins earned his nickname for a recording he made of "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie," written by Pinetop Smith. However, another version of the story says that he gave himself the nickname "Pinetop" because he liked the music of Pinetop Smith.

Perkins, who died at his home in Austin, TX, became the oldest-ever Grammy winner when he won for the best traditional blues album in February of this year. Perkins also won Grammy awards for Lifetime Achievement in 2005 and for Best Traditional Blues Album in 2007. His agent Hugh Southard said of Pinetop Perkins-- "He is the blues, he is the epitome of it...He lived it, breathed it."

In a career spanning eight decades, Perkins toured with Ike Turner in the 1950s and later with Muddy Waters. When he and Waters hooked up, Pinetop was in his 50s and never had recorded an album of his own but "had more energy than us younger folks did," the drummer Willie "Big Eyes" Smith said. (1988 AP photo of Perkins)

Once asked about his longevity, Perkins said: "I always try to do something different all the time."

Neil Portnow, president of The Recording Academy that awards the Grammys, called Perkins "a legendary bluesman and master piano player." Perkins was, said Portnow, a force to be reckoned with. "His robust playing style and distinctive voice were unmistakable. Whether performing solo or jamming with other notable talent, his charisma and energy stood out in every song."

And believe it or not, the piano was not Perkins' first choice of instrument. He started out on the guitar, but as a result of a misunderstanding with a woman, he was stabbed in the arm and suffered tendon damage. It was then that he switched to the piano.

Perkins never learned to read music but he could play with any group. He said the notes just came to him. "I didn't get no schooling. I come up the hard way in the world," Perkins told The Associated Press in a 2009 interview.

I asked Alabama blues musician Debbie Bond if she had ever jammed with Pinetop Perkins, and she responded, " I never played with him! But when I was playing guitar for Willie King I got to play many of the same festivals Pine Top was playing. We all would be put up in the same hotel. I would get to sit at the feet of greatness and hear Pine Top, Honey Boy Edwards and Willie King chew the fat and tell their stories. He remained spry, warm and energetic - and like these true blues guys do played as long as he could. Hard to believe he was two years older than Robert Johnson and Johnny Shines were...wish they could have lived as long. We are living in a time when these early legends and links to the past will all be gone. Get out and hear them while you can!" (photo of Debbie Bond and Perkins)

Pinetop Perkins was playing gigs in Austin area right up until the day he died. Despite his age, he played regularly at blues clubs. His agent told the Associated Press news agency he had more than 20 performances booked this year.

According to his agent, Perkins' tastes were simple. "Two cheeseburgers, apple pie, a cigarette and a pretty girl was all he wanted," his agent said.

Blues legend BB King, said: "He was one of the last great Mississippi Bluesmen, and he sure could play the piano. He will be missed not only by me, but by lovers of music all over the world."

A friend who lives in Austin just wrote me that Perkins played Antones in Austin on Saturday night before he died on Monday. As my friend commented---"What a way to go!"

----Penne J. Laubenthal
Related Links
    Pinetop Perkins RIP

    Alabama Blues Musician Debbie Bond Pays Tribute to Eddie Kirkland

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