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Tim: Pinetop Perkins

Joe Willie 'Pinetop' Perkins
A Delta Original (1913-2011)
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…okay, 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."

the writer with Pinetop Perkins during an interview, Long Beach, CA, 1993
Joe Willie 'Pinetop' Perkins at the 1993 Long Beach Blues Festival.
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 corn."

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 there."

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…peoples 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 went."

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…Angel Heart."

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… "Big 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…we 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… uhn..uhn."

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…. "Earl 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."

Pinetop Perkins with Hubert Sumlin and Big Daddy Kinsey at North Hollywood, CA in the late 1980's
North Hollywood Ca. w/ Hubert Sumlin and Big Daddy Kinsey in the late 1980's.
Photo:T.E.Mattox

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 background."

And the blues to Pinetop Perkins… "What 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….and Pinetop is in his domain.) "MY MOTHER!" he reiterates! "Sure did!"

(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 states matter-of-factly.

the writer with Pinetop Perkins at North Hollywood, CA
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…Pinetop 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 …dope or something, I don't know. And when they finished, my car was empty and they said, 'Now you can go on home.'"

Pinetop Perkins acknowledging fans
Pinetop never failed to acknowledge his fans. Photo: Yachiyo Mattox

What can we look forward to from Pinetop Perkins in the future? He looks directly at me, "Well, man what's never come out…will come up!" ….and his ever present smile, grew wider.

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.

Related Articles:
Blues and the Storytellers; Willie Dixon; David "Honeyboy" Edwards; Buddy Guy; BB King; Frank Frost; Eddie (Mr. Cleanhead) Vinson


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Let Tim know what you think about his traveling adventure.

I was there at the Shrine to see Bob come in riding on a baby elephant. He says in the interview it was either '68 or 69: it was both – it was New Year's Eve (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite),

Debbie Hollier, Nevada City, CA

* * * *

Who else played with Canned Heat and Deep Purple at the Shrine in '68?

Bill, LA

I think the Shrine show on New Years in '68, where Bob Hite rode out on the elephant, also featured Poco, Lee Michaels, Black Pearl, Love Army and Sweetwater. Don't know that Deep Purple was booked on that evening.

Bill, maybe you're thinking about the International Pop Fest in San Francisco a few months earlier that featured these fine folks... Procol Harum, Iron Butterfly, Jose Feliciano, Johnny Rivers, Eric Burdon And The Animals, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Grass Roots, The Chambers Brothers, Deep Purple, Fraternity of Man & Canned Heat or possibly the following year in Jan of 1970 when Deep Purple appeared with Canned Heat and Renaissance on a triple-bill in London at the Royal Albert Hall.

One final note: The current Johnny Otis piece didn't mention it, but it was Mr. Otis that took Canned Heat into the studio the very first time to record in 1966. Small world, ain't it?

Tim

* * * *

Thank u for posting it! Bob is still boogin' around!! (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite),

Stefano Di Leonardo, Fisciano (Salerno, Italy)

* * * *

Great Read! (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite) I will post it on Bob "THE BEAR" Hite Official Facebook Page,

Dave Tohill, Brandon, UK

* * * *

Hello Tim, thank you so much for letting a huge Canned Heat fan check out this
interview with the Bear. I really enjoyed it.

Best regards,

Rick Caldwell, Fairfield, Ohio

* * * *

I knew Bob Hite in the 60's. Canned Heat played at our high school prom 1966 Rexford High. The Family Dog, Chet Helms, Skip Taylor.

Max Kalik, Los Angeles, CA

Dear Tim,

I just discovered you from an email I received from Preston Smith disclosing his next event. I wanted to tap into his website Prestonsmithmusic but it would not link from your site for some reason. I have to say Preston really is a genius and I met him in Glendale at a jazz club about three years ago, after a fatal accident. By chance, I was invited to spend time hanging out with Preston and some friends after his gig. He is everything you say and I will never forget his amazing creativity and his positive influence in my life.

Janelle, Palm Springs, CA

Love the article! (on Lowell George) Lowell was my father.

Forrest George, Warren, Vermont

This Bob Hite interview is the most interesting thing I have read concerning Canned Heat. I have Fito's book, but I always was interested in learning more about Bob Hite. You did it here my friend...great interview!!!!!

Tony Musto - Pittston, PA

Hey Tim, Great article on Preston! I really enjoyed it and you did your homework. I'll probably catch PS this weekend.

Best,

Dave - Northridge, CA

* * * *

Hello, what a great article on Preston Smith! I actually met Preston one evening after an Acoustic set of my own at the Prestigeous Carlton Hotel here in Atascadero, Ca. We were loading up and he happened to be walking down the sidewalk and stop to say hello. I must say that he is a truly interesting and talented man that NEVER forgets to let me know when he is playing around the Central Coast where I live. It was so fun to read about who he truly is...(as if you don't know him the first time you meet him)! My adventures have only just begun as I recently returned from Nashville recording my self titled debut EP. I can only hope that my adventures down the road are as enlightening as Preston's and that I have the honor of a great writer such as yourself to share them with the world. Thank you for doing just that, sharing "Preston Smith" with the world.

Sincerely,

Amy Estrada - Atascadero, CA

Hi Tim,

My name is Bert, I'm from Italy and I'm a blues harmonica player...I read your article and it reminded me of the two trips I made in the Delta, in 2008 and 2009. I love Frank's music and I think it's a shame people don't really know his work. It's important that people like you write about him. Thank you! In the Delta I was only a "stupid" tourist, but it was a great, unique experience I consider one of the most important in my life: driving on the highways, Listening to the blues everywhere, jamming in places like Red's and ground Zero in Clarksdale or the Blues Bar in Greenville... are priceless things, something I will keep in my heart for the rest of my life. I met a beautiful, lovely woman there too (named Hope), but I behaved like a stupid kid and I lost her... Alas! I will never forget that days and the chance I had to find happiness...Well, I also wrote something about Frank on a website, but it's in Italian... I give you the link of the first part (the second will be published in the next weeks) anyway if you know some Italian or somebody who can understand it... Even if I'm thinking of making a translation ...www.bluessummit.com

Cheers,

Bert - Pavia, Italy

I wanna be Tim!

Brent, Seattle, WA

* * *

Those pictures give you an idea of what the Rockin' Pneumonia actually looks like and it looks BAD! But the man can still play! Enjoyed the article - give us more TRAVELING BLUES BOY!

Steve Thomas - NA, INDIANA

* * *

Good Stuff, Tim. Having been a Johnny Winter fan since the first time I heard Rock n Roll Hoochie Koo, it was great hearing his take on some his highlight moments that defined his blues career. His affiliation with Muddy Waters was particularly interesting. Kudos for bringing that out. Thanks to your dedication to covering the blues scene, this "one of a kind" music still lives for servicemen & women around the world. Keep it Up!

Brandon Williams, Moreno Valley, CA

* * *

Impressive! What a legend and how cool that you got so much time with him, Tim.

Don, Louisville, KY

Tim - Great article, enjoyed Little Feat/Lowell George story, really brought me back in time. Did not know he was a fishin' man! Wonder what surfaces out of the abyss of your memory next?

Steve Thomas, New Albany, IN

* * * *

Tim,

I really liked your travel back in time with Lowell and Little Feat. As a long time Feat fan (mostly the stuff with Lowell) it was cool to read. I learned several of their songs back in the day and they still stand up today when played live. Another singer I really liked from back then is TimBuckley. Thanks for the article.

Chet Hogoboom, Arroyo Grande, CA

Loved your last issue of TB, especially the Mayall piece. I want that guy's job!

Brent, Seattle, WA

Tim,

This is a great write up. Has it been printed in any magazines? It's better than a lot of things I read in my guitar magazines, so props for that.

Caejar, Moreno Valley, CA

Tim,

I can tell that you have this passion for jazz. I wonder if you yourself play any instrument. Or are you just a groupie like most of us?

I talked with a mid-aged flute jazz artist a few weeks ago and he lamented that despite his talents (and he is extremely talented) he says that the industry hasn't been kind to him. He said jobs are few and far between. He said the music industry is combating piracy and competition due to technology being readily available to private homes and that they are not as profitable as before. So they are replacing live talent for synthesized or digital instruments.

Do you see the same trend in your relationships with your music network?

Bob, Pasadena, CA


Stay tuned.


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