Joe Willie ‘Pinetop’ Perkins led a full and rewarding life. The iconic blues pianist passed away on March 21 at the age of 97. An important part of the post-war Delta blues scene of the forties through the sixties, he may have been best known as the pianist who succeeded Otis Spann in Muddy Waters Band. Later a member of the Legendary Blues Band, Pinetop, went on as a solo artist for the last 30 odd years of his life, receiving numerous awards and becoming one of the most beloved performers in the blues, always with a twinkle in his eye. With his passing one of the last links to the classic period of the Delta Blues has passed.
Pinetop started as a guitarist but after his arm was cut by a knife in a barroom fight, he took to the piano and became one of the top players in the post-war Delta scene. The name Pinetop derived from the fact that the Clarence ‘Pinetop’ Smith tune, “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie,” became a signature number for Perkins. He was a King Biscuit Boy, one of the members of Sonny Boy Williamson’s Band that played daily on KFKA from Helena, Arkansas and toured Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas. He taught a young Ike Turner how to play piano and later did sessions for Sam Phillips backing up Earl Hooker, Walter Horton and others as well as made his first recordings under his name (although these would not be issued until a couple decades later).
He was associated with guitarist Earl Hooker for a substantial time, and Bobby Bland on a Blues Cruise, called out to Pinetop, after seeing him on his scooter in front of the stage, if he remembered playing east St. Louis with bobby and Earl Hooker. PInetop’s music became known to blues fans when he was on Earl Hooker’s Arhoolie album, “Two Bugs and a Roach.” It was within a couple years after that that Pinetop joined Muddy Waters Band with whom he stayed until not that long before Muddy’s death. Lovie Lee was Muddy’s pianist when Muddy passed away. During this period he did a fair amount of recording sessions with Muddy and others. For example he appeared on Carey Bell’s excellent “Last Night” album on ABC-Bluesway.
Over the next three decades Pinetop started releasing albums under his own name. He was an affable singer, but his piano playing was consistently strong. He perhaps had a limited repertoire as reflected by his recording some songs repeatedly, but he had a delightful personality. He mentored countless other musicians (not simply pianists) and charmed fans worldwide with his music.