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PINETOP PERKINS: 1913-2011

Delta blues legend won a Grammy at age 97

Howard Reich

2:12 PM CDT, March 22, 2011

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Pinetop Perkins lived the blues.

Born on a cotton plantation near Belzoni, Miss., in 1913, he worked the fields from age 7, drove a truck for a living at 18 and got stabbed in the arm in his late 20s.

The barroom attack tore his tendons and cut his bone, ending his dreams of becoming a leading guitar man. Instead, he refashioned himself as a regal piano player.

And at 97, he stood as one of the last of the original Delta blues musicians who had migrated to Chicago but still toured the country.

Perkins died Monday, of cardiac arrest in Austin, Texas.

"He was absolutely the premier blues piano player," said Bruce Iglauer, founder of Chicago's Alligator Records, an independent blues label. "His career spanned literally over 80 years. He was the symbol of a whole generation of musicians."

But he was no nostalgia act, Perkins' easygoing keyboard virtuosity just last month winning him a Grammy Award for best traditional blues album, for "Joined at the Hip: Pinetop Perkins & Willie 'Big Eyes' Smith."That made him the oldest Grammy winner, the honor augmenting his 2007 Grammy for his work on "Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas" and his 2005 Grammy for lifetime achievement.

Perkins' influence was vast and his musical pedigree impeccable, for he collaborated with all forms of blues royalty, from Muddy Waters to Robert Nighthawk, Earl Hooker to B.B. King. Through it all, and despite the exigencies of age, he maintained an enduring mastery of the piano. Last year, his fingers flew over the keyboard during a packed-to-capacity show at Evanston's SPACE, his baritone swooping from high falsetto notes to rumbling low note with operatic drama.

Perkins not only ignited the music but clearly drove the band. Though he showed less digital prowess than in his artistic prime -- which, in his case, would have been when he was a mere octogenarian -- he cleverly worked around his shortcomings, dividing his technical flourishes between his hands.

It was a brilliant feat, all the more considering the self-taught nature of Perkins' work.

"I don't read music; it looks like dog droppings to me," he told the Tribune in 1998.

But Perkins learned about blues in the best -- and the toughest -- way possible: Immersed in the culture that produced it. Having taught himself guitar at age 10 and the piano a few years later, Joe Willie Perkins had plenty of musical inspiration to draw upon: He absorbed field hollers picking cotton and learned blues licks playing the juke joints of the Mississippi Delta, the mythic birthplace of the art form.

The tragedy -- and turning point -- in his musical life occurred in 1942, when an angry woman mistakenly blamed him for an offense her husband had committed and swung a blade at him.

"It was a freak accident," Perkins told the Tribune. "When she did that, I just said, 'Well, you just cut me out of my career, that's all I can say.' It was hard to start over. It was kind of rough, but I just figured out playing the piano the best way I could."

Indeed, he played piano with harmonica master Sonny Boy Williamson on the iconic "King Biscuit Time" radio show and with B.B. King in Memphis.

His caliber of keyboard brilliance had not often been encountered in blues, his early 1950s recording of Clarence "Pinetop" Smith's showpiece "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" establishing his reputation and giving him his famous nickname.

By then he had moved to the South Side of Chicago, part of a Great Migration of blues artists such as Roebuck "Pops" Staples and David "Honeyboy" Edwards who re-imagined and electrified the art form for an urban audience.

Generations of musicians learned and modeled their art on Perkins, including no less than Ike Turner.

"Pinetop would be the birth of rock 'n' roll, because he taught me what I played," Turner told the Tribune in 2004.

For all of Perkins' influence and experience, he didn't cut his first recordings under his own name until the late 1980s, including a contribution to "Living Chicago Blues, Vol. 2" (Alligator). The recordings and the accolades flowed after that, including "Portrait of a Delta Bluesman" (Omega Records, 1993); "Down in Mississippi" (Hightone Records, 1998); and "Ladies Man" (M.C. Records, 2004).

The death of his common law wife, Sara Lewis, in 1995, triggered a depression and periods of drinking, but Perkins got himself back on track.

"He was a guy who put a huge amount of humor in his music," said Iglauer. "When you think of his blues, they made you smile."

hreich@tribune.com