May 08, 2008
I THOUGHT FOR SURE that the last time I saw blues great
Willie "Pinetop" Perkins would be the last time
I'd ever see Willie "Pinetop" Perkins.
a Nicasio show coming up and a new album, famed
piano man Willie 'Pinetop' Perkins
isn't letting age slow him down
(Provided by Diane Russell)
Let me explain: Revered as the piano player in the legendary
Muddy Waters Band, Perkins is a blues hall of famer whose
barrelhouse style has influenced generations of rock and
I had the pleasure of meeting him five years ago when he
played West Marin's Rancho Nicasio with his pal Willie "Big
Eyes" Smith. That night, he recorded tracks for a live
album, the Grammy-nominated "Ladies Man," with
Marin's Elvin Bishop and Angela Strehli sitting in.
Pinetop was 90 then, and had a plaster cast on his right
arm, which he'd shattered when he'd driven around a railroad
crossing barrier in his hometown right into the path of
an oncoming freight train.
"I broke my arm
and nearly busted my brains out, but I could've been gone,"
he told me, looking dapper in a black pinstriped suit, before
At the time, he was one of the last of the old-time Mississippi
bluesmen still performing. I figured the old cat had used
up his nine lives with that little confrontation with a
train and, given his advancing years, thought it would be
a pretty safe bet I'd never have the chance to see him play
again. Which is why I don't gamble.
Since then, Perkins has won two Grammys - for lifetime achievement
in 2005 and another last year for traditional blues album
for a concert recording with Henry James Townsend, Robert
Lockwood Jr. and David "Honeyboy" Edwards called
"Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live
Townsend and Lockwood died in 2006, leaving Perkins and
Edwards as two of the few surviving bluesmen with a direct,
first-hand connection to seminal figures like Waters and
harmonica ace Sonny Boy Williamson. In his time, Perkins
played with both of them.
If you have any doubts about his ability to sing and play,
listen to him boogie on "Chicken Shack," a cut
from the Grammy-winning album. I just did and I can't stop
Pinetop Perkins is a rare bird. Careers don't normally take
off when a musician's in his 90s, which makes his return
to Rancho Nicasio for a show on May 22 all the more incredible.
This week and last, Perkins was in his native Mississippi
for ceremonies dedicating a couple of Mississippi State
Blues Trail Markers in his honor. He's also up for Blues
Foundation award for his DVD, "Born in the Honey -
The Pinetop Perkins Story."
He'll be celebrating his 95th birthday on July 7 with a
new "Pinetop Perkins and Friends" CD, set to be
out in June, with guests Eric Clapton, B.B. King and Jimmy
These days, Perkins lives in Austin and still goes out every
night to favorite clubs like Antone's, where he has a special
table and personal ashtray. He's been smoking for 86 years.
Pinetop never gave up smoking, but he gave up phone interviews
a few years ago, and his memory isn't so great (whose is?),
except when it comes to remembering lyrics.
he gets up on stage and plays and sings, the years fall
away," said his manager, Pat Morgan, speaking from
Clarksdale, Miss., home of the Delta Blues Museum. (If Clarksdale
can have a museum, Marin can, too, but we already know that.)
Once again, Pinetop will be accompanied at Rancho Nicasio
by his old bandmate Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, who
played drums with Muddy Waters at the same time that Perkins
was in the Waters band.
Smith is 72 and has a new CD as well, "Born in Arkansas."
I spoke to him by cell phone this week just before he left
his home in Chicago to drive overnight to the Blues Music
Awards in Tunica, Miss., a gambling resort on the Mississippi
I asked him how it is that Pinetop, and himself for that
matter, managed to live so long in the rough-and-tumble
world of the blues.
"Music," he said
without hesitation. "That's what keeps you going. You
look around at all the musicians, the ones who didn't throw
their lives away doing bad things, who have taken care of
themselves, and they live a long time."
That may be, but if you want to see one of the all-time
greats while you still can, this might be the last chance.
Of course, I've said that before, so what do I know?
"Pinetop is doing great," his manager said.
"I've got a lot of clubs vying to book him on his 100th
IF YOU BOOGIE
- Who: Willie "Pinetop" Perkins, with Willie "Big
- When: 8 p.m. May 22
- Where: Rancho Nicasio, on the town square in Nicasio
- Tickets: $20
- Information: 662-2219, www.ranchonicasio.com
Paul Liberatore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org