Joseph William Perkins was born on July 7, 1913 in Belzoni, Mississippi in the Mississippi Delta. His parents separated when he was 6. Joseph Willie Perkins, who dropped out of school after only three years, taught himself the rudiments of blues guitar on a homemade instrument called a ‘diddley bow’: a length of wire stretched between nails driven into a wall. While still in his teens he left Mississippi and travelled to Chicago.
The last I saw of Blues pianist Pinetop Perkins was his being interviewed (unfortunately rather clumsily I thought) by Clint Eastwood in a televised production devoted to Blues pianists shortly before his demise. Despite his old age he was still acutely aware of the damage done to his left arm resulting from a stabbing in 1943 which robbed him of his intention to pursue guitar playing and restricted his piano left hand – not that I or as far as I can tell anyone else noticed. Given that the style of boogie at which he excelled was in some measure built over a strong left hand, that earlier damage I’m guessing began increasingly to make itself felt only as he got older.
If you want to know how Saturday night felt after working in the cotton fields, listen to Pinetop play – that’s how it felt.
‘Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie,’ the song that furnished him with his nickname and became his signature number, he appropriated from the repertoire of the barrelhouse piano player Clarence Smith, who was also known as ‘Pinetop’.
His parents separated when he was 6 – he had a tough (to say the least) upbringing, sadly Pinetop had no family left to mourn his passing – only people like me.
Perkins began playing the blues as a teenager in 1927. Pinetop concentrated exclusively on the piano after that incident, in 1943, in which a dancer at a juke joint attacked him with a knife, severing the tendons in his left arm. The injury left him unable to hold a guitar or manage its fret-board. I can say from first hand experience that even minor damage to your left arm (for right-handed players) will absolutely mess up your playing.
Pinetop went on to perform behind Muddy Waters for 12 years, touring with the legend and exposing his piano skills to a worldwide audience.
His longevity as a performer was remarkable — all the more so considering his fondness for cigarettes and alcohol; by his own account he began smoking at age 9 and didn’t quit drinking until he was 82. Few people have been as prolific in the ninth and tenth decades of their lives!
Pinetop Perkins’s durability was born of the resilience and self-reliance he developed as a child growing up on a plantation in Honey Island, Miss., “I grew up hard,” he said in a 2008 interview, “I picked cotton and ploughed with the mule and fixed the cars and played with the guitar and the piano.”
“What I learned I learned on my own,” he continued. “I didn’t have much school. Three years.”
He learned to play in the same school as Muddy Waters – a cotton field, where the school lunch was, “a fish sandwich and moonshine whiskey.”
“I played more of a bluesy type than Spann did (referring to the great Otis Spann), I taught myself off records, Memphis Slim and them old piano players, then added to it. Yeah, hard and loud, beat it to pieces.”
“What little family I got is in Mississippi,” Pinetop said in an interview, “A whole lot of them died before I left, and my sister died a long time ago, before my mama did. I had a bunch of friends and people in Chicago, but no family.”
Pinetop Perkins, a master of ‘Delta Boogie-Woogie’ was among the last surviving members of the first generation of Delta bluesmen. He died on Monday March 21st 2011 at his home in Austin, Tex. He was 97.