He's the Piano Man

Pinetop Perkins can't return to his blues roots -- because he never left them.

Pinetop Perkins is a man of priorities. Sure, there's a writer on the phone waiting to talk music, but the 86-year-old piano legend has important stuff to do. "I can't talk right now," Perkins says in a gritty, down-in-the-bottoms voice. "I'm gettin' ready to go fishin'." A moment later Perkins has slipped off the phone like a bass off a slack line. One week, several fishing trips and a half-dozen phone calls later, Perkins finally trades his trusty Zebco rod and reel and thirty-pound test line for the telephone. "I use heavy line. That way the big ones don't get away," says Perkins, who fishes six days a week when he's not out playing. "I've caught some big ones, man, carp and catfish, thirty to forty pounds. Oh, yeah. I didn't catch nothin' today, but that's all right. See, the reason I go fishing is to get out of the house, and if I can't do any catchin', I do some lookin', you know what I mean?"

These days, things are looking up for Perkins. "I'm doing all right for an old man," he says. "Life is hard, you know. It's a tough titty. But I got to suck it -- it's all mama got." Few could get away with such a remark, but when Perkins follows the crack with a sorghum-molasses chuckle, he certainly does. Besides, he's got the right to speak in occasional blue terms: Perkins may be the greatest blues piano player of the century, a title he's earned by playing through most of it.

Born in 1913, Perkins's invitation to the blues came as a result of trouble at home. "I was growing up, and my grandma, it seemed like she didn't like me," Perkins recalls. "Yeah, she was mean to me, mmm-mmm. She'd come through and knock me out with a stick of stove wood, and when I did come to, I'd jump up and run. Oh, yeah. She was a black Creek Indian, see, and them's some mean folks. I got the blues behind that, see, so I started playing guitar and stuff."

Early guitar influences -- Perkins started picking at age eleven -- were locals who played on porches and in juke joints near his Belzoni, Mississippi home. Through the Thirties, Perkins earned pocket money playing guitar and a little piano around the Delta, supplementing his income as a farm hand in the region's cotton fields. In between playing gin mills, he played churches, and the combination was a source of trouble for Perkins.

"I got with a girl, a sanctified girl, and her daddy was a sanctified preacher," Perkins recalls. "So, what happened, I'd play the church in the daytime and the tavern at night. What made me quit the church was, her daddy, every time I'd play there, he'd tell me, 'The Lord is gonna bless you, the Lord is gonna bless you.' And he has, but he wouldn't give me no money. That gave me the blues."

In the early Forties, Perkins's skills at farming -- not music -- may have saved his life. "They had me on the bus to carry me to the Army to get trained," Perkins remembers, "and the man had a list of names, and mine was on it. I got kicked off the bus. I worked on a government farm, and the owner wanted me out there to work. I could make a tractor do everything but talk." Perkins furthered his musical work by backing a number of Delta heavyweights, including Robert Nighthawk and Earl Hooker. Along the way, he gave Ike Turner his first piano lessons and did a five-year stint with Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), performing on Williamson's legendary King Biscuit Flour Hour. While gigging with Williamson, a gin-mill incident ended Perkins's guitar-playing days. "This woman stabbed me," Perkins says. "We was at this place drinkin', and she went to the washroom, and I closed the door. Then her husband put barrels of coal ashes in front of the door and she couldn't get out for a couple hours. I was the last one she seen shut that door, so when she got out, she lit in on me with that knife." The blade cut a muscle in Perkins's left arm and kept him from fretting a guitar properly, so he took up ivory-tickling full-time.

For Perkins, the move was a blessing: A year later he was playing piano with up-and-coming legends B.B. King and blues shouter Little Milton Campbell. King was a good bandleader, Perkins recalls, but Campbell was not. "He talked to me like I was one of his kids," Perkins says of Campbell. "He gave me some hard words, and I was old enough to be his granddaddy. I told him, 'Nah, you get you a piano player, son. I'm gone.'"

After another stint with Earl Hooker in Chicago, Perkins landed the position that put him in the blues pantheon -- playing piano for Muddy Waters, after Otis Spann left Waters's group. His nimble playing, a shade more understated than Spann's, provided the perfect accompaniment to Waters's bristling, cinched-down electric sound. Perkins's pleading, incessant chords and occasional flashes filled Waters's empty spaces keenly, and he played with Muddy from 1969 to 1981. (Fresh proof of Perkins's awesome contributions to Waters's sound can be found on the new Blind Pig Records release, Muddy Waters: The Lost Tapes, a previously undiscovered batch of live material recorded in 1971.)

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