Rant ‘N’ Roll: Pinetop Perkins…Direct From Heaven

He died last year on March 21 just days after winning a Grammy—his third—for a duet album with Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Joined At The Hip. Yeah, he must have loved that. But Pinetop Perkins wasn’t one of those rural bluesmen who suffered in silence never to reap the benefits of world acclaim. No sir, ol’ Pinetop scaled the heights alright. His 12 years playing piano in the band of Muddy Waters (1913-1983) from ‘69 to ‘80 took him around the world (he replaced Otis Spann). Then, when Muddy’s band broke up, he formed The Legendary Blues Band, with some Muddy alum, and they rocked the house for another 16 years, touring, recording and backing up John Lee Hooker in The Blues Brothers movie. There’s a delicious scene in that movie of Pinetop arguing with John Lee outside Aretha’s Soul Food Café over who wrote the song “Boom Boom.” At 75, he went solo. In his 80s and 90s, he was revered, fawned over and righteously put on a pedestal, receiving accolades up the ass until it all stopped dead at 97, a hell of a long and fulfilling life. This, despite the fact that legend has it he ate greasy foods his whole life, drank enough liquor for 10 men, smoked and cavorted with unsavory characters and women with questionable morals.

There may be a lesson in there somewhere.

He stole his name from an earlier bluesman, Clarence “Pinetop” Smith (1904-1929). He also stole his song, recording “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” in 1953 for Sun Records in Memphis while touring the south with Earl Hooker (1929-1970). The first Pinetop had recorded a similar riff with the same name in 1928. Before that, he had come out of Belzoni, Mississippi in The Roaring Twenties to work bars with slide guitarist Robert Nighthawk (1909-1967). He was playing guitar back in those days but, similar to Dr. John, who was forced to switch to piano from guitar due to a gunshot to his hand, he suffered a knife wound to his arm when a crazy woman in Helena, Arkansas stabbed him and severed some tendons. Goodbye guitar, hello piano. He also performed with Sonny Boy Williamson (1912-1965) on the radio in the ‘50s.

Now we have Heaven (Blind Pig), a soulful satisfying posthumous masterpiece that, up until this point, has never been heard. It’s unadorned Pinetop on eight of 12 tracks—his effervescent personality, his ragged-but-right voice and his boogie-woogie piano, influenced by Jimmy Yancey (1894-1951).

Four of the tracks have some friends along for the ride. Willie Smith sings on “Sittin’ On Top Of The World.” Sure, we all know it by Cream, but it was first written and recorded by The Mississippi Sheiks in 1930. It is the last recording by Smith, who died last year on September 16 at 75. Otis Clay, 70, and still alive, sings the beautiful “Since I Fell For You,” the 1945 Buddy Johnson classic that’s been sung by hundreds of singers including myself. Two other tracks have guitar (Tony O), harmonica (Mike Markowitz), bass (Brad Vickers) and drums (Pete DeCoste).

But it’s the solo stuff that totally captivates.

I discovered “Sweet Home Chicago” when Taj Mahal first recorded it. His version made me go back and dig up the original by Roosevelt Sykes (1906-1983). Here, Pinetop nails it, asking that quintessential question, “baby, don’t you wanna go?”

He wrote about what he knew. Thus, “4 O’Clock In The Morning” and “Just Keep On Drinking” is his antidote to a healthy lifestyle. That and his pounding boogie.