Joe Willie "Pinetop" Perkins

Blues Piano Player
A man sitting at the piano.

Photo courtesy of the artist


It is ironic that the Mississippi Delta, long identified with poverty and social strife, was at the same time one of the 20th century's most fertile and influential musical regions. As the birthplace of the blues, it was a fountainhead for some of the most respected and popular American musical creations, such as jazz and rhythm 'n' blues. While the Mississippi River flowed southward, the blues flowed northward, as blues musicians went up the river to Memphis, St. Louis, and Chicago. Today, we are fortunate to have with us some of the seminal figures who keep alive the history of the blues.

"Pinetop Perkins" was born into a farming family in Belzoni, Mississippi in 1913. His first musical instrument was the "diddly bow," a piece of wire stretched between two nails driven into a wall. He took up the guitar, and, learning from local musicians and from recordings of blues legends Robert Johnson, Leroy Carr, and Pinetop Smith, at the age of 10 he began to play at dances and house parties around the Paines-Deadman Plantation in Honey Island, where he grew up. Around the age of 12, he took up the piano as well. When he came of age, he began playing in Delta clubs and jooks. One of his favorite pieces was Pinetop Smith's "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie;" "they used to call me 'Pinetop' because I played that song," he says. In 1943, Pinetop Perkins's reputation spread as he appeared regularly on two influential, live radio shows broadcast from Helena, Arkansas, the Mother's Best Flour/Bright Star Flour show and The King Biscuit Time show. He began to perform more widely, touring to Florida, East St. Louis, and other points in the Midwest and making his first recording in 1950. He resettled to Chicago in the 1960s, and in 1969 joined Muddy Waters's band, touring worldwide during the next 11 years. Leaving Muddy Waters in 1980, he became a main figure in the Legendary Blues Band.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Perkins recorded numerous albums and won seven Handy Awards for Instrumentalist of the Year. Blues Review publisher Bob Vorel describes his significance from today's perspective: "Joe Willie 'Pinetop' Perkins is a member of that elite group of blues musicians -- First Generation -- who were directly responsible for laying the foundation of the musical genre we call 'the blues.' Pinetop's life-long accomplishments and musical partners reads like a 'Who, What, and Where' of the blues world. From the King Biscuit Hour radio show to [the] Muddy Waters band, Pinetop has played all of the great venues and with every historical figure . . . and he continues to play as solidly today as he ever has." The long list of musicians with whom he has played includes B.B. King, Sonny Boy Williamson, Bobby "Blue" Bland, John Lee Hooker, Eric Clapton, Howlin' Wolf, the Rolling Stones, and many others.

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