Twenty years after releasing his first solo recording and nearly eight decades into his legendary career, 94-year-old blues pianist Pinetop Perkins is still going strong.
Last month, the highly influential Delta bluesman—best known for his stint backing Muddy Waters in the 1970s—received Grammy nominations for two of his latest efforts, Pinetop Perkins On the 88s: Live In Chicago and Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas, a nod he shares with fellow postwar blues players Henry James Townsend, Robert Lockwood Jr. and David “Honeyboy” Edwards.
After hearing of the honor from his manager, Perkins—who received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005—reportedly replied with his trademark phrase for good news. “Oh, yeah,” said Perkins. “Whatsinever. We’ll let it come.”
Landing Grammy nominations for two albums in the same year is an impressive feat for any musician, but that’s especially so for a near-centenarian who is lucky to be playing piano at all. In 2004, a train struck the car Perkins was driving, breaking the weathered musician’s right arm and requiring more than 40 stitches in his head. When asked about the incident later that year, Perkins responded with his famous dry wit.
“My arms feel fairly good,” he told NPR’s Scott Simon, “but I can’t use them like I used to. I used to play the piano, but the piano’s playing me now.”
If Perkins’ reply seems casual, perhaps it’s because this wasn’t the first time his livelihood was threatened by an injury. The Mississippi native, born Joe Willie Perkins in 1913, began his decades-spanning career as a guitarist in the late 1920s, performing in and around the Mississippi Delta until the 1940s, when tendons in his left arm were damaged in a fight.
According to popular legend, Perkins was knifed by a woman whose jealous husband had locked her in the bathroom of a club. Upon being freed, the furious Arkansas choirgirl attacked the first person she saw, Pinetop Perkins.
No longer able to play guitar, the versatile musician quickly transitioned to piano and began work on Sonny Boy Williamson’s King Biscuit Time radio show in Helena, Ark. Over the next decade, he continued making a name for himself in blues circles, touring extensively with slide guitarist Robert Nighthawk and even working briefly with B.B. King. But it was while backing Earl Hooker that Perkins first achieved considerable notoriety and earned the nickname that has lasted more than half a century.
In 1953, during a session for Sam Phillips’ renowned Sun Records, Perkins and Hooker laid down a version of Pinetop Smith’s “Boogie Woogie,” originally recorded 25 years earlier. According to Perkins, the recording made such an impression that he was soon tagged “Pinetop,” a name he carries to this day.
The next 15 years, however, found Perkins living in relative obscurity. Then, in 1969, he was offered the gig of a lifetime—replacing pianist Otis Spann in the Muddy Waters Band. Perkins played with Waters for 12 years and has claimed that it was the most enjoyable, if not the most profitable, period of his life.
“I loved playing with him,” Perkins told interviewer Richard Skelly last year. “We went all over Europe, every which where. We had a booking agent, but we wasn’t making too much money from them tours.”
Eventually, he and several band mates parted ways with Waters to form the Legendary Blues Band, releasing two albums before Perkins, then in his mid-70s, left to pursue a solo career. Finally, in 1988, well into his sixth decade as a recording artist, Pinetop Perkins released his solo debut, After Hours.
Since establishing himself as a headliner, the aging bluesman has remained remarkably prolific, releasing 15 albums in as many years and touring extensively across the country. Over the past decade, Perkins has received five Grammy nominations and a lifetime-achievement award, been featured in Martin Scorsese’s PBS documentary The Blues, starred in Peter Carlson’s biographical documentary Born In The Honey, and even had the Blues Music Award’s best-piano category named after him.
All this may seem extraordinary for a man nearly a century old, but Perkins says he’s only doing what he’s always done.
“I just play the music for the people, make a dollar or two” he told Skelly. “I ain’t much of a talker; I’m a squawker. I just do the best I can. That’s all I can do!”
[Dane Smith is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]
who:Pinetop Perkins with Bob Margolin and The Plowshares
what:Legitimate blues legend
where:Garage at Biltmore
when:Friday, Jan. 25 ($25. www.thegarageatbiltmore.com or 505-2663)