Pine Top Perkins – Legendary Blues Pianist


Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins, a legendary blues pianist, was born on a plantation seven miles southeast of Belzoni on July 7, 1913. Throughout his career, Perkins was a member of blues legends Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2 and Muddy Waters bands. In the 1980s, when Perkins began touring and recording as a featured singer and soloist, he gained a legion of fans who saw him as the blues piano genre’s de facto grand old man.

Pinetop Perkins
Only when he was 75 years old (in 1988) did Perkins release an album in the United States under his name, but during the next two decades, as the undisputed patriarch of blues piano, he recorded more than fifteen LPs and CDs. Although Perkins’ early musical interests lay in guitar, he eventually picked up the piano thanks to the influence of local musicians and the records of artists like Clarence “Pine Top” Smith. Many pianists, including Perkins, took up boogie Woogie after hearing Smith’s “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie” in 1929; some even took the name “Pine Top” or “Pinetop” for themselves.

Growing up, Perkins bounced across the Delta, staying with various family, friends, and even the grandparents of his guitar-playing pal Boyd Gilmore. Perkins started playing at juke joints, house parties, and cockfights after working as a cotton picker, handyman, mechanic, and truck driver. With blues guru Robert Nighthawk, he got his start as a professional musician. For radio shows in the 1940s on KFFA in Helena, Arkansas, Perkins played piano alongside Nighthawk and Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2 (Rice Miller). Due to injuries sustained after being stabbed by a lady in Helena, he was compelled to abandon playing the guitar, despite being already more well-known as a pianist. On the Hopson plantation outside Clarksdale, Perkins worked as a tractor driver. Later in Clarksdale, he became a piano teacher to a young Ike Turner and began collaborating with another musical prodigy, guitarist Earl Hooker.

In 1950, during a Nighthawk session in Chicago, Perkins made his first recording debut as a pianist. Two versions of “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” were recorded by Perkins, Boyd Gilmore, and Earl Hooker in 1953 for Sam Phillips’ Sun label in Memphis. Pinetop kept up his work at a laundromat and a garage while continuing to play with Nighthawk, Hooker, and others. After Otis Spann, another famous pianist with Belzoni ancestry departed Muddy Waters’ band in 1969, Waters recruited Pinetop Perkins to replace him. Since his 1976 first album for a French label, he has gained international renown through tours and recordings with Muddy. In 1980, Perkins and the rest of the band members decided to leave Muddy and form the Legendary Blues Band. Once the band had recorded two albums, Perkins finally began his solo career.

Other blues musicians who were either born in or had a significant connection to the Belzoni area include Denise LaSalle, Boyd Gilmore, Eddie Burns, Paul “Wine” Jones, Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2, and Elmore James.

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