Willie 'Pinetop' Perkins
A Delta Original
By T.E. Mattox
he applause was still dying down as 80 year old Joe Willie 'Pinetop'
Perkins stepped off the stage at the 1993 Long Beach Blues Festival
in Southern California. As someone handed him a cold drink he sauntered
over and sat down next to me. 80
and he wasn't even winded. I
still gave him a few minutes to settle and replenish his fluids
beer. After shaking a few more hands and joking with friends and admirers,
he turned toward me as if to say, alright young man, ask away.
Armed with a manuscript of questions I started with
when people first stopped referring to him as Joe Willie Perkins, and
began to call him, 'Pinetop.'
"After I made 'Pinetop's Boogie Woogie' over
again (originally recorded by Clarence 'Pinetop' Smith) on Sun's
Records back in the 50's."
Joe Willie 'Pinetop' Perkins at the 1993 Long Beach
Photo: Yachiyo Mattox
As one of the few surviving early Delta players, I wanted
to know what he remembered about growing up on the Paines-Deadman Plantation?
He looked surprised. "Paines? (I flicker my papers like
a deck of cards) Man, that's way back there and I can't hardly think
of everything, but I'll do the best I can with it. Paine's-Deadman
aw man, I used to live out there. Plowed 'a mule, picked cotton, pulled
That the reason you turned to music? "Yea man,
I had to do something,' you know to keep things going. That was way
back man, in the 30's, last part of the 20's and early 30's, along in
What do you remember about Honey Island? "Nuthin!"
(laughing) "That's where I was born and my mother and them take
me out from there before I know anything about it, you know?"
Do you recall the first time you ever heard the blues?
"Oh man, I can't hardly tell ya' when that is. It's been a looong
time ago. That's way back in the 20's."
Did you hear it in the fields? "Yea
say, 'who taught you how to play?' Nobody! I taught myself. I had a
musical talent, I guess."
There's really no guessing about this man's talent.
Perkin's earliest instrument was a piece of wire stretched between two
nails tacked on a wall. That one string 'diddley-bow' would eventually
become a guitar, and a few years later, piano. "I played guitar
first, and got in Helena, Arkansas and a one of them ladies done stabbed
me in the arm and I can't play guitar no more. So, that's the way it
You were just a kid (around 10 or 11) when you first
played in a honkeytonk called the Old Barrelhouse? "Yea, that
was in Belzoni, Mississippi. Yea, I remember that, that's where I learned
at. Every once in awhile I get on the piano, banging on it and they
try to run me out, 'Boy, get outta' there! And no sooner it gets cooled
down, I go right back on it again, you know? (laughing) The Barrelhouse
Club, years ago."
You seem to have played EVERYWHERE! Country dances,
traditional picnics and fish fries; did you ever play in any houses
of ill repute? "Well, I played in some houses, don't know if
they were whore houses or not. They might have been. (I swear
I see a glint in his eye as he starts laughing) I played in everything.
In the Blues Brothers movie and all that stuff
From the beginning you were running with a pretty fast
crowd, literally some of the all-time blues greats. Robert Nighthawk,
Sonny Boy Williamson, Earl Hooker, Big Joe Williams
Joe Williams? Oh man, I loved that Joe. He never did sing with me none.
I love that Joe, man." Pinetop also knew jazz vocalist, Joe
Williams and remembered, "He played with Count Basie a long
time. My best memory of Big Joe was he was a good singer, he was really
good. I loved the way he sung."
Tell us a little about your association with Robert
Nighthawk? "Oh man, I played with Robert about four years. And
what took me from Robert Nighthawk when I was over in Helena, Arkansas
was advertising Bright Star Flour. Mr Max Moore, Interstate Grocery
Man at KFFA, he heard me and told Sonny Boy (Williamson) 'Looky
here man, hey, go over there and get him. I want him to play for me.'
He loved the way I played piano. Dudlow (Robert Taylor) was playing,
Mr. 5x5 (not to be confused with Jimmy Rushing) was playing then."
Perkins played on a number of the most popular live
radio broadcasts out of Helena. As mentioned, the Bright Star Flour
program with Nighthawk, and of course the most prominent from that time
was sponsored by King Biscuit Flour. The show featured numerous stars
of the day, like Sonny Boy Williamson, Houston Stackhouse and James
'Peck' Curtis. I had heard that Pinetop might even have played for a
third program known as, 'Mothers Best,' but he told me, "I never
did play on Mothers Best, no
In the late 40's and early 50's, Pinetop would once
again hit the tour circuit with Robert Nighthawk, eventually ending
up in Chicago at the renown '708 Club.' He would also back the legendary
slide guitarist in the studio, on some of Nighthawk's last recordings
for Chess. Another friend of Pinetop's, Willie
Dixon produced and played bass on those memorable Nighthawk sessions.
You also ran with Earl Hooker for awhile
Hooker? Boy, oh me and him got together years ago. He was 13 years old
when we started playing together. And I was young and had nuthin' of
nuthin'! (laughing) That was way back, I was about 20 or something
then, and Earl was real young. But he was in bad shape. (Hooker
suffered from tuberculosis and died in an Illinois Sanitarium at age
40.) He was sent to the hospital, and every once in awhile he'd come
back around and say, 'I'm well now.' He wouldn't be discharged; he'd
done slipped out of the hospital. (laughing) The doctor didn't
turn him loose; he'd turn his own self loose. He'd come back, 'I'm well
now!' And no sooner than he'd get back, they'd send him right back to
the hospital. So the last time, Muddy Waters heard me playin' with him."
North Hollywood Ca. w/ Hubert Sumlin and Big Daddy
Kinsey in the late 1980's.
Didn't you replace Otis Spann in Muddy's band? "Well,
in a way I did. Otis had quit him and I started playin' in the band
with him. That was '69. 1969, so I played with him up until '80."
What was it like playing in Muddy's band? "Oh,
I loved playing in Muddy's band, man. I loved it 'cause he had the 'stomp-down'
blues stuff. That's why I loved it."
Muddy Waters, (McKinley Morganfield) like Pinetop, had
honed his chops on a Southern plantation and both men came of age when
blues were ingrained. Where music was expressed and absorbed through
feelings and instinct, much more readily than the traditional student/teacher
exchange. I'm thinking it was probably where the term 'old school' originated.
Pinetop is nodding, "Oh, yea. I liked that background, the old
And the blues to Pinetop Perkins
are the blues? Man, when you're lonesome and your good girl quit you,
you got the blues so bad you can't sing 'em, hardly. You got 'em then,
boy! And somethin' happen to you
and you got the blues if you're
livin,' you know?"
The ladies still give you trouble? (Now you CAN'T miss
the twinkle in those 80-year old eyes and Pinetop's smile exhibits a
distinct Cheshire cat-like quality) "Well, I got too old for
that. When you get 80 years old they don't bother you too much."
I mention that David
'Honeyboy' Edwards once told me, he just 'loves' the ladies. (Pinetop
instantly becomes animated, like a jolt of electricity shot through
him.) "I LOVE them, but what am I gonna' DO with them!?"
he hoots. "Nuthin!' (The backstage area erupts with
laughter.) "It's like a dog runnin' after an automobile. If
it stops he don't know what to do with it!" (more laughter)
"That's the way it goes."
You must know Honeyboy
"YEA, I know Honeyboy.
He snuck around my MOTHER, years ago!" (the entire backstage
disintegrates into pandemonium, stagehands, other performers, journalists
Pinetop is in his domain.) "MY MOTHER!" he reiterates!
(As everyone tries to regroup and recover, I daub the
tears off my face and smeared paperwork; I ask how is it that some bluesmen,
like himself and the 'honorable' Mr. Edwards, seem to have such long
and productive lives. "Luck's of the Lord!" Pinetop
At the Palomino - North Hollywood, CA. Pinetop's
humor was legendary.
Photo: Yachiyo Mattox
You take care of yourself? "NO!" (Everyone
backstage falls apart again.) And like the master of timing he is
waits for it
. "But I do the best I can."
I comment he looks pretty good and hasn't changed much
since we last talked about four years ago.
"I thought," he quips, "I looked
like Cheetah, you know?" (
and the crowd goes wild.) "I'm
about two years older than black pepper."
You going to keep playing blues? "I'm going
to try, if the Lord spares me."
Pinetop was working on a new solo album at the time
of our conversation and still living in Chicago. I was curious if he
ever ran into another Delta player that was living in the Windy City;
James 'Snooky' Pryor? "Man, Yea!" Me and Snooky was in
Germany together last month." Although not a big fan of the
travel, Pinetop admitted he did it for the bucks. "I'm trying
to make some bread, man; some bean money."
European audiences really have an appreciation of the
blues and especially the originators. "Oh yea, they love it.
And they know me. I've been all over Europe, all over Australia, and
Africa and places."
Tell me about one of the craziest or wildest clubs you
ever played? "The craziest club or bar I ever played in? Well,
I didn't play, but I went to it. That's Buddy
Guy's place, when he had the Checkerboard Lounge. I come outta'
that place and a man put a pistol in my side and say, 'hey, get over
and let me have your car, man.' I say, 'take the car and go ahead.'
He looks at me like I'm a fool or something. And he took me with him."
He took your car
.?? "Yea, and ME too!
And we drove all around (Chicago) dropping off
something, I don't know. And when they finished, my car was empty and
they said, 'Now you can go on home.'"
Pinetop never failed to acknowledge his fans. Photo:
What can we look forward to from Pinetop Perkins in
the future? He looks directly at me, "Well, man what's never
will come up!"
.and his ever present smile,
One of Pinetop's long-time friends, Buddy Guy, told
me a wonderful story about his piano playing protégé.
"Just before Jimmy Rogers' died, he (Pinetop) used to
play with Jimmy a lot, at my club in Chicago. So I walks in the club
before they start playing, and I went to say 'hi' to Pinetop and he
took his leg and throw'd it up on the bar like this." (Buddy
hoists his leg up near the table) "I say, 'what's that for?'
And they had that monitor on his leg (Buddy begins to laugh)...from
the police. I say, 'who did you kill?' He said, 'Nobody!' I say, 'what's
wrong with you?' He said, 'simple drunk, they got me just simple drunk.'
The only time they let him come out at night, is if he was working,
they wouldn't stop him from playing the keyboard. I said, 'you wasn't
drivin'?' He said, 'no, I was just simple drunk, walkin'.'
So then he takes me over there and sits down and
said, 'they told me to stop drinkin', he say, 'but Buddy' and he had
this shot of whiskey in his hand. He say, 'if I stop drinkin
now this has been about 15 - 18 years ago. He say, 'if I stop drinkin'
(Buddy snaps his fingers)
that's IT!' I say, 'DON'T stop
drinkin' then, then keep on drinkin'. And about three or four years
before he passed away, they had him at the club again and he came in,
they was rolling him out in a wheel chair and it was raining. I say
I hadn't hollered at him, I want to holler at him before he go, and
I say, 'wait a minute 'Top, I wanna' say hi before you go.' He say,
'I ain't goin' nowhere, I'm goin' outside to smoke.' And I think he
was 93 or something. And I say, 'if you can smoke at 93, people should
stop saying cigarettes are not good for you.' (laughs)
Early in 2011, the world was Pinetop's oyster. Although
in his 90's he was still vital, still productive and still doing what
he loved the most. He had just been recognized with a 'best traditional
blues album' Grammy for a recording he'd done with old friend, Willie
'Big Eyes' Smith entitled, 'Joined at the Hip'. A memorable evening
and lasting moment that embraced the man before generations of his friends,
fellow musicians and fans. You have to think that the extended applause
that night was not only for his music and his remarkable career, but
an outpouring of love and respect for a legendary and gentle man. Thanks,
'Top. Rest in Peace.
and the Storytellers; Willie
"Honeyboy" Edwards; Buddy
(Mr. Cleanhead) Vinson