95 Years of Blues - 'Pinetop' Perkins Comes to Marin

May 08, 2008

  close up shot of Willie 'Pinetop' Perkins sitting behind an electric piano and smiling slightly at the camera
With 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)
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.

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 blues musicians.

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 his show.

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 in Dallas."

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 smiling.

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 Vaughan.

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.

"When 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 River.

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 birthday."


- Who: Willie "Pinetop" Perkins, with Willie "Big Eyes" Smith

- 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 liberatore@marinij.com
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