IF THERE IS A HEAVEN—and God knows there ought to be for those blues musicians of The Delta who endured grievous deprivations and sufered countless indignities yet brought joy to so many—Pinetop Perkins is certainly there. A benevolent deity would have to set aside the peccadilloes of a musician’s lifestyle and cut the man some slack for all the good he has done, the wonderful music he has made and the positive attitude he maintained. And don’t forget points earned for Pinetop’s long practice of not playing past midnight into Sunday morning— “the Lord’s Day”.
Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins passed away on March 21, 2011 four months shy of his 98th birthday and one month after celebrating his third Grammy, shared with his old friend and bandmate Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. Still vital and working to the last, subsisting on his daily diet of McDonald’s and a smoke, Pinetop’s longevity defied nearly all odds and delighted everyone along the way. Despite eating questionably, drinking lustily, firting shamelessly, surviving a car wreck (at 91!), and myriad other bad-boy behavior, he enjoyed a full life and endeared himself to all.
As a young man Joe Willie Perkins played the guitar and piano in the environs of Belzoni, Mississippi where he was born in July 1913. While working in a bar with guitarist Robert Nighthawk, he was attacked by a knife-wielding woman who severed tendons in his left arm, ending his guitar playing. Focusing on piano, he worked on radio with Nighthawk, with whom he recorded in 1950, and appeared on KFFA’s King Biscuit Time with Sonny Boy Williamson and his band. In 1953, while touring the South with Earl Hooker, Perkins made his frst recording of Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie for Sun records, ultimately borrowing Clarence “Pinetop” Smith’s 1928 composition—and nickname—for the remainder of his career.
Beginning in 1969 Pinetop spent twelve years with Muddy Waters’ band during a most productive era in which they reached their greatest audiences and recorded some enduring tracks. In 1980 he spun off with the Legendary Band with whom he recorded and toured extensively for sixteen additional years before exploring opportunities as a bandleader and solo artist. At seventy-five years of age, two years after leaving the Legendary Band, Pinetop recorded his frst American full-length release as a leader. That 1988 recording, After Hours, was issued by none other than Blind Pig, who now gives you Heaven, an eminently worthy bookend to that milestone recording.
Pinetop went on to enjoy international acclaim in his eighties and nineties and was recognized with a prestigious National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in addition to his eighteen Blues Foundation Awards (the piano category is now named in his honor), three Grammys and numerous other awards and nominations.
It is truly sublime to be able to savor one more recording of Pinetop’s. And this is not just another recording: Heaven captures a beautifully intimate studio performance by Pinetop when he was “only” seventy-three— with twenty-four more years of playing and touring ahead of him. He performs solo on all but four tracks. The self-taught master pianist, whom Ike Turner publicly praised as his mentor, is in magnifcent form, delivering thundering chords and glissandos, rolled chords, trilled notes, complex metrical substitutions, sly musical quotes—and of course the lightly swinging boogie woogie for which he is beloved.
When Pinetop plays the older blues numbers the listener hears the music very close to the way ’Top frst heard it or composed it, with little embellishment added over the decades and with no diminishment of affection for the words or melody. His strong, rough-edged voice conveys an authority that is complemented by a subtle playfulness or vulnerability, perhaps best epitomized on his own compositions, such as Ida B, 4 O’Clock in the Morning and the marvelous Pinetop’s Blues, and also evident on the time-honored 44 Blues. Sitting On Top of the World is yet another selection delivered in this manner, with a lovely touch of Jimmy Yancey in the bass rolls, but sung by guest vocalist Willie Smith, who was overdubbed in July, 2011 when he was sitting on top of the world after winning the Grammy with Perkins for Joined at the Hip. It is believed this track is Smith’s last recording, as he unexpectedly passed away in September of 2011.
On Buddy Johnson’s lovely Since I Fell For You Pinetop is accompanied by guest singer Otis Clay who captures the sweet agony of the lyrics and nails those blue notes in a very personal, private performance.
Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie is included despite being covered on previous releases. But consider that a fan would have felt cheated if ’Top failed to play this iconic number in concert. Likewise it belongs on here—and it is a fine, strong take. Pinetop was the rare musician who could fully capture the spirit of a 60-year-old recording and deliver it crisply and organically.
Likewise, Sweet Home Chicago, a song vilifed by many as a trite tourist-pleaser, becomes vigorous and individualized in Pinetop’s hands and is a great vehicle for his boogie style. The song clearly had not lost its luster for Pinetop, who probably played it for more than 60 years, and his fondness makes it appear refreshed for us.
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises is Pinetop’s reading of the jazz standard Willow Weep For Me, which is clearly the most interpretive of his selections on Heaven. This appears to be the frst and only time Pinetop recorded this number.
It is unquestionably a little slice of heaven for us to have Pinetop Perkins, that brilliant dean of the blues keys and lovable rascal, for this bonus after-hours set of masterful music.
I think I hear some rafter-rattling ivories from just beyond those pearly gates. Let’s go have a listen.
— JUSTIN O’BRIEN
In memory of the late Pinetop Perkins, we urge you to consider supporting the Pinetop Perkins Foundation (www.pinetopfoundation.org).