Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


PERKINS, Pinetop

(b Joe Willie Perkins, 7 July 1913, Belzoni MS; d 21 March 2011, Austin TX) The king of blues piano. He grew up on the Paines-Deadman Plantation in Honey Island, self-taught on guitar from about 1923 and soon began learning piano. Though often working outside music, he toured barrelhouses and jukes with Willie Love, Big Joe Williams, Boyd Gilmore, and Robert Nighthawk as far as St Louis. In the 1940s he appeared on various radio programs at KFFA in Helena, Arkansas, and on King Biscuit Time with Sonny Boy Williamson.

Sometime in the 1940s, a story goes, an angry chorus girl attacked him with a knife and cut a tendon in his hand, ending his guitar playing. According to Sheldon Harris's Blues Who's Who (1978), he claimed to have given 'Pinetop's Boogie Woogie' to Clarence 'Pine Top' Smith (the tune later became a huge Swing Era hit when recorded by Tommy Dorsey in 1938) but this is unlikely, as Smith had recorded it in Chicago in 1928 when Perkins was still a teenager in Mississippi. (However, Perkins recorded it in Memphis for Sam Phillips in 1953.)

He recorded with Nighthawk in Chicago in 1950 on Aristocrat (the name of that label soon changing to Chess). He was still forced to work outside music, but toured with Earl Hooker and recorded with him on King in Memphis in 1953, worked with Johnny O'Neal's Hound Dogs in East St Louis, Illinois in the mid-1950s, and with Little Milton, Albert King, and others in the same area. He settled in Chicago in 1960, working outside music, and finally, in the late 1960s he began to become a legend.

He recorded with Hooker on Arhoolie in 1968, and the following year replaced Otis Spann in the Muddy Waters band. From then on he toured and recorded with Waters, and later with the Waters ghost band as the Legendary Blues Band, and also with Carey Bell on Delmark in 1970, with Willie Wilkins on Supreme in 1971, and so on. In the 1970s he still occasionally worked outside music, but he played the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1969 and 1972 (a portion issued on Atlantic), the Montreux Blues Festival in 1974, the Newport Jazz Festival in 1973 and the Newport Jazz Festival Blues Picnic in 1977, with Hound Dog Taylor at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City in 1974, and many other fests and concert halls. In the 21st century he was still at it, a much loved and much sought-after sideman, e.g. recording with Maria Muldaur on one of her beautiful blues CDs in 2005.

His own albums include
 Boogie Woogie King '76 on Evidence,
 After Hours '88 on Blind Pig, On Top '92 on Deluge (in 2005 on 95 North), Pinetop's Boogie Woogie '92 on Discovery, Got My Mojo Workin' '95 on Blues Legends,
 Live Top '95 on Deluge, With The Blue Ice Band '95 on Earwig, Born In The Delta '97 on Telarc, 
Down In Mississippi '98 on HMG,
 Live At 85 '99 on Shanachie, 
Back On Top 2000 on Telarc, 
Live At Antone's, Vol. 1 2000 on Antone's, Pinetop Is Just Top 2002 on Black & Blue and 
Ladies Man 2004 on MC. A DVD documentary called Born In The Honey: The Pinetop Perkins Story
 with a bonus CD Live In Chicago came out in 2006 from Sagebrush Productions.