He's the Piano Man

Sittin' on top of the world: Pinetop Perkins.

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.)

"He was a cat man to play with, he was a real scound bugger," Perkins says of Waters. "He was good." But Perkins and his fellow bandmates grew tired of being cheated of their pay by Waters's manager and left en masse in 1981. The departure may have contributed to Waters's death in 1983, Perkins says, due to the strain of having to play with new musicians.

Since parting company with Waters, Perkins has kept a busy but low-key profile, touring around Chicago, taking occasional tours overseas and recording a few albums on small imprints. His career got a second wind in 1993 when he released his first solo disc, Portrait of a Bluesman, on the Omega label. It's a moving slab of historic material that showcases Perkins's rare gifts in a naked setting. Perkins slides easily through a virtual catalogue of American music, from stomping boogies like his namesake tune, "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie," to New Orleans-flavored strollers, gleaming swing tunes and open-armed shuffles. Best of all, Perkins floats through bittersweet laments that swell with pain and tension before he frees the listener with achy fills and resolution. The album's tunes are highlighted by Perkins's surprisingly youthful vocals, and the cuts are interspersed with numerous spoken anecdotes about his past. It's a brilliant recording, a sweeping view of decades of the genre he helped sculpt.

In 1997 Perkins released Born in the Delta, (recorded with former Waters teammates Jerry Portnoy and Willie Smith, among others), a straightahead late-night set that's solid and sharp, if a tad predictable in its song selection. Last year he delivered Legends, a duet disc with Hubert Sumlin, a vintage guitar player and blues cornerstone.

But life in Chicago went sour after Sarah, his wife of thirty years, passed away in 1996. "That worried me to death. That still gives me more blues," Perkins says. Even more troubling was the behavior of his late wife's children from a previous marriage. ("She'd already laid her litter out when I got her," Perkins reveals with a giggle.) "Every time I'd go out of town, they'd steal everything that wasn't nailed down and go sell it," Perkins says. "I had six guns -- they stole all of 'em from me. It was terrible, man. Them boys could steal the sweetenin' out of a gingersnap and not break the crust."

Perkins escaped the domestic mess this year, when a longtime fan and recent friend, Buck Levandoski, helped him relocate. "I just started going up there and taking care of him there on the South Side of Chicago," says Levandoski, who fronts a blues band and owns a blue-collar bar in La Porte, Indiana. "His stepkids, they took his tools, his weapons -- every time he'd go away, they'd move into his house. So we moved him down here. When I met Pine, I just took a liking to him," Levandoski adds. "He's one of the sweetest old men I've ever met in my life." Perkins couldn't be happier about his new setting. "Buck and his wife, they come to my rescue. They real nice people. Wish I'd been with them years ago." Levandoski says Perkins has become a favorite in town. "They know him in all the bait shops," he adds.

Perkins's popularity around the globe is also peaking. Antone's records is currently working on a disc of his slated for release in early 2000, and this year he won a W.C. Handy award (his ninth) for best blues pianist. He's also increased his trips to Europe and blues festivals around the nation. A few weeks ago he appeared at a North Carolina blues festival with former Waters sidemen Willie "Big Eyes" Smith and guitarist Bob Margolin. The three were joined by Waters's son, Big Bill Morganfield (who now has a debut disc, Rising Son, out on Blind Pig). For his Colorado shows, Perkins will be joined by the Homewreckers, a Denver quartet that backed him on his trip through town last spring.

Homewreckers co-frontman Al Chesis, who saw Perkins play twenty years ago, says Perkins hasn't lost a step, nor is he some clock-watching old-timer going through the motions. "He still plays his fast stuff," says Chesis. "The last time through, we'd been playing for a while and I told him, 'You can take a break now if you want to.' He just kept on playing. He gets into it."  

Perkins, however, says there's a side effect to attaining living-legend status. "People worry me to death talking about autographs," he says. "It's kind of hard on me, 'cause I didn't get no higher than fourth grade in school when I went to workin'. But I can write a little. I tell 'em, 'You've got to heed it to read it.' I just try to keep on going," he adds, "and it looks like everybody likes what I'm doing. I just hope I can keep doing it for a long time."

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