Born: July 7, 1913 in Belzoni MS
Although he seldom is afforded the respect given fellow blues pianists like Otis Spann, Sunnyland Slim, or Champion Jack Dupree, Joe Willie "Pinetop" Perkins has quietly forged a career that has spanned ten decades and seen the Mississippi native perform behind many of the giants of the blues, from Muddy Waters and Koko Taylor to Buddy Guy, James Cotton, and Sonny Boy Williamson. An underrated vocalist with a rich, soulful voice, Perkins' mix of boogie-woogie blues with elements of jazz, barrelhouse, ragtime, and Chicago blues has influenced several generations of blues piano players.
Pinetop's Boogie Woogie
Joseph William Perkins was born in Belzoni, Mississippi in the Mississippi Delta. Not much is known about his early days, but according to his official biography, Perkins began playing the blues as a teenager in 1927. Perkins first played guitar, performing at parties and in honky-tonks until a run-in with an angry, knife-toting young woman in the 1940s injured his arm and left him unable to play the instrument. Perkins subsequently began playing piano, developing a style that incorporated boogie-woogie and jazz piano with his country blues roots to create a unique instrumental signature.
Perkins worked primarily as a sideman throughout much of his career, first accompanying guitarist Robert Nighthawk on his KFFA-AM radio program out of Helena, Arkansas, later jumping over to perform with Sonny Boy Williamson on his King Biscuit Time program on the same station. Perkins toured throughout the Mississippi Delta during the 1930s and '40s with Nighthawk and Williamson, and he briefly worked with guitarist B.B. King in Memphis during the early 1950s.
Muddy Waters & the Legendary Blues Band
Blues guitarist Earl Hooker asked Perkins to join his band during the early 1950s, and it was during a session for Sam Phillips' Sun Records label in 1953 that Perkins cut his trademark song, a raucous cover of Clarence "Pinetop" Smith's "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" that earned Perkins his well-known nickname. During the 1950s and '60s, Perkins virtually retired from the road, doing session work for Hooker, Little Milton, Albert King, and others until he was recruited by Chicago blues great Muddy Waters in 1969 to take Otis Spann's place in his band after Spann's departure.
Perkins performed behind Waters for 12 years, touring with the legend and exposing his piano skills to a worldwide audience. Perkins lent his talents to Waters' Johnny Winter-produced records during the decade, including 1977's Hard Again and 1978's I'm Ready. In 1980, Perkins and his bandmates – drummer Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, harpist Jerry Portnoy, and bassist Calvin Jones – left Waters' band over an argument about money and formed the Legendary Blues Band. This group recorded two albums, 1981's Life Of Ease and 1983's Red Hot 'n' Blues before Perkins, tiring of the constant touring, again retired from the road.
Pinetop's Solo Career
During the 1980s, Perkins supported himself through session work, appearing on significant blues recordings by artists like James Cotton, the Nighthawks, and Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, among others. In 1988, Perkins launched his solo career with the release of After Hours. Making up for lost time, beginning in 1992, Perkins released 15 albums in 15 years, including 1998's Grammy™ nominated Legends, a collaboration with guitarist Hubert Sumlin, and 2007's Grammy™ winning Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen, a live set with Henry Townsend, Robert Lockwood Jr., and "Honeyboy" Edwards.
Perkins' solo career resulted in a Grammy™ Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005 while a year later, Perkins was honored when The Blues Foundation changed the name of its annual award for best piano player to the "Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the Year." The bluesman stayed busy during the first decade of the 21st century, performing at blues festivals and working in the studio with younger artists like Fiona Boyes and Big Bill Morganfield. Perkins released Pinetop Perkins and Friends in 2008, featuring guests like Eric Clapton and Jimmie Vaughan.
Recommended Albums: You can't go wrong with Perkins' acclaimed debut, After Hours, the pianist backed by New York City blues outfit Little Mike & the Tornadoes. The 2005 M.C. Records release Ladies Man features such all-star guests as guitarists Elvin Bishop, Deborah Coleman, and Susan Tedeschi as well as solid band that included bassist Bob Stroger and drummer/harpist Willie "Big Eyes" Smith. Perkins' 2010 release, Joined At The Hip, was recorded with Smith and shows that Perkins still has plenty of fire left in his tenth decade of performing.
Pinetop Perkins Select Discography
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- After Hours (Blind Pig Records, 1988)
- Boogie Woogie King [1976 sessions] (Evidence Records, 1992)
- On Top (Deluge Records, 1992)
- Portrait of a Delta Bluesman (Vanguard Records, 1993)
- Live Top (Deluge Records, 1995)
- With The Blue Ice Band (Earwig Records, 1995)
- Pinetop's Boogie Woogie (Discovery Records, 1997)
- Born In The Delta (Telarc Records, 1997)
- Legends [w/Hubert Sumlin] (Telarc Records, 1998)
- Sweet Black Angel (Polydor Records, 1998)
- Down In Mississippi (HMG Music, 1998)
- Live At 85! (Shanachie Records, 1999)
- Back On Top (Telarc Records, 2000)
- Live at Antones's, Vol. 1 (Antone's Records, 2000)
- Heritage of the Blues (Hightone Records, 2003)
- Ladies Man (M.C. Records, 2004)
- Pinetop Perkins on the 88s: Live in Chicago (VizzTone Records, 2007)
- Pinetop Perkins and Friends (Telarc Records, 2008)
- Joined At The Hip [w/Willie "Big Eyes" Smith] (Telarc Records, 2010)