Pinetop Perkins
Perkins at the Riverwalk Blues Festival in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 2006
Background information
Birth nameJoe Willie Perkins
Born(1913-07-07)July 7, 1913
Belzoni, Mississippi, U.S.
DiedMarch 21, 2011(2011-03-21) (aged 97)
Austin, Texas, U.S.
GenresPiano blues, boogie-woogie, Delta blues, Chicago blues
Occupation(s)Musician, singer
Instrument(s)Piano, vocals, keyboards
Years active1920s–2011
LabelsBlind Pig, Antone's

Joe Willie "Pinetop" Perkins (July 7, 1913 – March 21, 2011) was an American blues pianist. He played with some of the most influential blues and rock-and-roll performers of his time and received numerous honors, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and induction into the Blues Hall of Fame.

Life and career

A black-and-white photo of Perkins seated at a piano
Perkins in 1976

Early career

Perkins was born in Belzoni, Mississippi and raised on a plantation in Honey Island, Mississippi.[1] He began his career as a guitarist but then injured the tendons in his left arm in a knife fight with a chorus girl in Helena, Arkansas in the 1940s.[2] Unable to play the guitar, he switched to the piano.[3] He also moved from Robert Nighthawk's radio program on KFFA to Sonny Boy Williamson's King Biscuit Time.[4] He continued working with Nighthawk, however, accompanying him on "Jackson Town Gal" in 1950.

In the 1950s, Perkins joined Earl Hooker and began touring. He recorded "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" at Sam Phillips's Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee. The tune was written by Pinetop Smith, who created the original recording in 1928. Perkins didn't write; he "got as high as third grade in school."[3] He learned to play-off Smith's records. As Perkins recalled, "They used to call me 'Pinetop' because I played that song."[5]

Perkins then relocated to Illinois and left the music business until Hooker persuaded him to record again in 1968. Perkins replaced Otis Spann in the Muddy Waters band when Spann left the band in 1969.[4] After ten years with that organization, he formed the Legendary Blues Band with Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, recording from the late 1970s to the early 1990s.[4]

Later career

Perkins played a brief musical cameo on the street outside Aretha's Soul Food Cafe in the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers, having an argument with John Lee Hooker over who wrote "Boom Boom". He also appeared in the 1987 movie Angel Heart as a member of guitarist Toots Sweet's band.

Perkins was a sideman on countless recordings but never had an album devoted solely to his artistry until After Hours, released by Blind Pig Records in 1988.[6] The tour in support of the album featured Jimmy Rogers and guitarist Hubert Sumlin.

The death of Perkins's common law wife, Sara Lewis, in 1995, triggered a depression and periods of drinking.[7] In 1998, he released the album Legends, featuring Sumlin. In 2001, Perkins performed at the Chicago Blues Festival with Ike Turner.[8] Turner credited Perkins with inspiring him to play piano.[9]

The two musicians onstage: Edwards standing and Perkins seated at a keyboard
Perkins with the other final living Delta blues musician, David "Honeyboy" Edwards, in 2008

Perkins was driving his automobile in 2004 in La Porte, Indiana, when his car was hit by a train. The car was wrecked, but the 91-year-old driver was not seriously hurt. Until his death, Perkins lived in Austin, Texas. He usually performed a couple of nights a week at Momo's, on Sixth Street.

The song "Hey Mr. Pinetop Perkins", performed by Perkins and Angela Strehli, played on the common misconception that he wrote "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie":

Hey Mr. Pinetop Perkins
I got a question for you
How'd you write that first boogie woogie
The one they named after you

As he aged, Perkins's hearing declined.[10]


On March 21, 2011, Perkins died in his sleep of cardiac arrest at his home in Austin, Texas at the age of 97.[7][11] Multiple memorial services were held in Perkins's honor in cities throughout the United States. The Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi held a dedicated jam on March 31, 2011, for friends and fans of Perkins.[12] A music-filled open-casket funeral for Perkins was held in Austin, Texas on March 29, 2011, and was attended by several fellow musicians including Willie "Big Eyes" Smith and Bob Margolin.[13]

Perkins was laid to rest in the McLaurin Memorial Garden cemetery in Clarksdale on April 2, 2011, following a final open-casket "homegoing" celebration.[10] The finally laying to rest was ministered by Henry Epsy, the first Black mayor of Clarksdale, and the altar display included Perkins's favorite meal: a McDonald's Big Mac and apple pie.[10]

At the time of his death, he had more than 20 performances booked for 2011. Shortly before he died, while discussing his late career resurgence with an interviewer, he conceded, "I can't play piano like I used to either. I used to have bass rolling like thunder. I can't do that no more. But I ask the Lord, please forgive me for the stuff I done trying to make a nickel."[14] Perkins and David "Honeyboy" Edwards were the last surviving original Delta blues musicians. Perkins was also one of the last surviving bluesmen to have known Robert Johnson.[14]



Bruce Iglauer, founder of Chicago's Alligator Records, stated Perkins was "absolutely the premier blues piano player." He added, "His career spanned literally over 80 years. He was the symbol of a whole generation of musicians."[7] Perkins influenced blues musicians such as Ike Turner, who he taught how to play piano.[15][3] "Pinetop would be the birth of rock 'n' roll, because he taught me what I played," Turner said.[7] Perkins collaborated with various bluesmen, including Muddy Waters, Robert Nighthawk, Earl Hooker, and B.B. King.[7]

Pinetop Perkins Foundation

In the late musician's honor, the Pinetop Perkins Foundation holds annual workshops for young musicians interested in Blues and Jazz music.[16] The workshop, which usually occurs in Clarksdale, Mississippi but was made virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic, provides young musicians master classes with some of the best living talent in the traditional Blues and Jazz genres, and culminates in a performance at the Ground Zero Blues Club by the students.[16] The other arm of the foundation provides financial relief to aging musicians through a program called the Pinetop Assistance League; with a goal of ensuring that elderly musicians who can no longer earn an income can pay their housing and medical costs in order to have comfort and dignity in their later years.[17]

Awards and honors

Perkins was named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2000.[5]

In 2003, Perkins was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.[18]

In 2005, Perkins received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.[1]

In 2008, Perkins, together with Henry Townsend, Robert Lockwood, Jr. and David "Honeyboy" Edwards, received a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album for Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas.[1] He was also nominated in the same category for his solo album Pinetop Perkins on the 88's: Live in Chicago.[19]

At the age of 97, Perkins won a Grammy Award in the category Best Traditional Blues Album for Joined at the Hip, which he recorded with Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, thus becoming the oldest winner of a Grammy Award,[11] edging out the comedian George Burns, who had won in the spoken word category 21 years earlier.[20]


Perkins has been the subject of two documentary films: Born in the Honey (2007) and Sidemen: Long Road to Glory (2016).[1][21] He also appeared in Clint Eastwood's 2003 documentary Piano Blues.[22]

Selected discography

With Carey Bell

With Earl Hooker

With Muddy Waters

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Friskics-Warren, Bill (March 21, 2011). "Pinetop Perkins, Delta Boogie-Woogie Master, Dies at 97". The New York Times. p. A25.
  2. ^ Dahl, Bill. "Pinetop Perkins Biography". AllMusic. Retrieved August 25, 2017.
  3. ^ a b c "Ike Turner & Pinetop Perkins: Student and Teacher". Elmore Magazine. November 1, 2006.
  4. ^ a b c Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books. p. 154. ISBN 1-85868-255-X.
  5. ^ a b "Joe Willie 'Pinetop' Perkins: Blues Piano Player". National Endowment for the Arts. n.d. Retrieved December 31, 2020.
  6. ^ "Pinetop Perkins Profile". Blind Pig Records. Retrieved August 25, 2017.
  7. ^ a b c d e "Delta blues legend won a Grammy at age 97". Chicago Tribune. March 22, 2011. Retrieved April 2, 2021.
  8. ^ Kening, Dan (June 8, 2001). "Chicago Blues Fest turns 18". Chicago Tribune.
  9. ^ Dahl, Bill, Whiteis, David (June 7, 2001). "Chicago Blues Festival 2001". Chicago Reader.((cite web)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  10. ^ a b c Moser, Margaret (April 22, 2011). "Last of the Delta Bluesmen". The Austin Chronicle. Retrieved April 2, 2021.
  11. ^ a b "Blues Pianist Pinetop Perkins Dies Aged 97". BBC News. March 22, 2011.
  12. ^ "CLARKSDALE: Pinetop Perkins Funeral Arrangements, etc". Retrieved February 27, 2021.
  13. ^ Corcoran, Michael. "Austin bids Pinetop Perkins a heartfelt farewell". Austin 360. Retrieved February 27, 2021.
  14. ^ a b Chilton, Martin (March 22, 2011). "B. B. King Leads Tributes to Pinetop Perkins". The Daily Telegraph.
  15. ^ Turner, Ike, Cawthorne, Nigel (1999). Takin' Back My Name: The Confessions of Ike Turner. London: Virgin. pp. 25–27. ISBN 9781852278502.((cite book)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  16. ^ a b "Pinetop Perkins Foundation - WORKSHOP". Retrieved February 28, 2021.
  17. ^ "Pinetop Perkins Foundation - PINETOP ASSISTANCE LEAGUE". Retrieved February 28, 2021.
  18. ^ O'Neal, Jim (November 10, 2016). "Pinetop Perkins – Inductee". Blues Foundation.
  19. ^ "Grammy Awards for Pinetop Perkins". The Recording Academy. Retrieved August 25, 2017.
  20. ^ "Pinetop Perkins, Oldest Grammy Winner, Dead at 97". Billboard. Associated Press. March 22, 2011. ISSN 0006-2510.
  21. ^ Catsoulis, Jeannette (August 17, 2017). "Once Simply 'Sidemen,' Now They're the Stars". The New York Times. p. C6.
  22. ^ "Piano Blues: Directed by Clint Eastwood". PBS. Retrieved December 14, 2017.
  23. ^ "Eye to Eye". Valley Entertainment. Retrieved August 25, 2017.
  24. ^ 10 Days Out: Blues From The Backroads at Discogs
  25. ^ "Pinetop Perkins & Jimmy Rogers with Little Mike and the Tornadoes – Genuine Blues Legends". discogs. Retrieved October 15, 2017.