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Pinetop Perkins - Heaven (2012)

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Pinetop Perkins' Heaven

Pinetop Perkins' Heaven

Photo courtesy Blind Pig Records

Although he passed away just a couple of months shy of his 98th birthday in March 2011, the death of legendary blues pianist Willie "Pinetop" Perkins still seemed to arrive far too early. In February of that year, Perkins had become the oldest Grammy® Award winner in history, sharing the honor with his longtime musical partner Willie "Big Eyes" Smith and their critically-acclaimed album Joined At The Hip. Perkins was still touring, and while not as prolific with his performances as he was in his youth, he nonetheless had twenty shows scheduled at the time of his death.

One of the last remaining connections to the Delta blues roots of the 1920s and '30s (the other being the late Honeyboy Edwards, who also sadly passed away in 2011), Pinetop Perkins had been such an integral part of the blues world for so long, whether as a member of Earl Hooker or Muddy Waters' bands, or as a solo artist, that it was hard to imagine the blues scene without him. Luckily for longtime fans, Blind Pig Records – for whom Perkins had recorded his 1988 solo debut After Hours – has rescued this previously unreleased performance from the vaults. Recorded in 1986, when Perkins was "only" 73 years old, the pianist performs solo on eight of the dozen tracks on Heaven, assisted by guest vocalists on a couple of songs and by a full band, of sorts, in the background of four performances.

Pinetop Perkins' Heaven

Heaven cranks it up from the beginning, Perkins' delivering a spirited reading of the traditional "44 Blues," the song's sparse solo arrangement bolstering rather than detracting from the piano player's rough-hewn vocals and elegant fingering of the keys. Perkins was quite capable of switching gears without a moment's notice, however, as evidenced by his original "4 O'clock In The Morning," the slow-rolling number blending an undeniably bluesy undercurrent with a sophisticated country-styled flavor reminiscent of the great Floyd Cramer, who lent his own R&B-influenced keys to songs by Nashville legends like Jim Reeves and Webb Pierce as well as a young Elvis Presley during the 1950s and '60s.

The instrumental "Relaxin'" further displays Perkins' skills as both a "songster" (an interpreter of songs) and "musicianer" (a musician capable of playing in any style), the pianist layering in a bit of boogie-woogie jive atop another "countrypolitan" styled keyboard romp. Perkins' delightful performance of the blues standard "Sitting On Top Of The World" is augmented by the warm vocals of his long-time musical partner Smith, whose voice was dubbed on top of the instrumental track in July 2011, just a few months after Perkins' death and a couple months before his own untimely passing. Perkins' piano playing here is wonderful sublime, wringing every ounce of emotion out of the song while Smith's vocals are a welcome addition to a fine performance.

Pinetop's Boogie Woogie

Perkins' "Just Keep On Drinking" is an urbane blues number with heartbreak lyrics that showcase the pianist's voice at its best, the accompanying piano fills offered in service to the vocals rather than demanding the spotlight. Perkins' fluid instrumental technique, honed to a sharp edge by a long lifetime of experience, really shines during the song's brief piano solo. The great soul man Otis Clay provides vocals for the R&B torchsong "Since I Fell For You," Perkins adding a melancholy instrumental voice behind Clay's considerable phrasing and emotion. For his signature song, "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie," the pianist pulls out all the stops to deliver a jaunty, raucous reading of the song that rolls and thunders like a tornado.

While the authorship of the blues standard "Sweet Home Chicago" remains a one of the intriguing mysteries of the blues, Perkins prefers fellow boogie pianist Roosevelt Sykes' arrangement above frequently-cited versions by Scrapper Blackwell, Kokomo Arnold, or even Robert Johnson. Perkins spruces the performance up a bit with his lively vocals and fleet-fingered piano-pounding, but the song's infectious melody is easily recognizable to any hardcore blues fan. The pianist's original "Pinetop's Blues" is a moody, atmospheric piece that shares a Chicago blues vibe with a faint New Orleans styled barrelhouse sound. It's a wonderful performance that defines the greatness that was Pinetop Perkins.

The Reverend's Bottom Line

For fans of piano blues, Heaven is a divine gift, one last chance to hear Pinetop Perkins, arguably the greatest piano-basher in the blues, perform near the peak of his considerable skills. Although Perkins was often harder on himself than any critic, the intimate studio backdrop from which Perkins' draws these performances was the perfect setting for the pianist to cut loose and just let the music flow. Highly recommended... (Blind Pig Records, released April 17, 2012)

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