Pinetop Perkins – The living blues
It is difficult to imagine any man three months shy of his 95th birthday looking more regally insouciant than Pinetop Perkins does from his backstage perch at an out-of-the-way roadside joint known as Circle B Recreation in Cedarburg, Wisconsin. You’d never guess that he’d been out until three in the morning the previous night, meeting up with his old Chicago friends and playing a birthday party in honor of the proprietor of Rosa’s, a famous club on the South Side where he’d accompanied Muddy Waters on a regular basis 40 years ago.
But after six hours sleep and a two-hour car ride, he’d put his lithe frame into a red three-piece suit with matching velvet pinstripes and fabric-covered buttons, topped by a snap-brim fedora with a turquoise peacock feather tucked into the headband. It’s the same outfit he wore to collect his Grammy for best traditional blues record (Last Of The Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live In Dallas) at the awards ceremony in Los Angeles back in February. Now, as he sits on one of the folding chairs lining a table full of chips and cold cuts in a modest kitchen crowded with well-wishers backstage, its resplendence is further enhanced by the contrast.
Located 20 miles north of Milwaukee, the Circle B looks and feels like an American Legion hall pulled out like an accordion on 100 yards of parking lot by the side of a rural highway. It’s got 24 lanes of bowling, a karaoke area, two or three small bar sections where pitchers of beer can be had for $5.50, and a spacious, low-slung performance hall set up with enough long tables and folding chairs to accommodate the sellout crowd of more than 400 people.
On a raised stage at the end of the hall, framed by a fat brow of hokey, brown-painted shingles to gin up a little back-porch ambiance, a local blues band warms up the audience. The middle-aged lead singer describes being introduced to the blues via Hard Again, a Muddy Waters album recorded in 1977. His anecdote can be heard back in the kitchen, where the piano player on that Hard Again platter leans over and plucks a circle of pepperoni between his thumb and forefinger and pops it in his mouth. “Aw riiiiight,” he says with a smile, nodding to another in a procession of smitten fans.
Then it’s time for the main event, a concert by the Legends of Chicago Blues. Pomp and preamble being part of the game, the ensemble begins with a rhythm section featuring just one of the legends, bassist Bob Stroger, then adding harmonica player Willie “Big Eyes” Smith (the drummer for Muddy Waters) after a couple of tunes. Former Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin is due up next, but after a consternated flurry of activity, it is revealed that Sumlin has been wheeled out of the backstage kitchen on a gurney, victimized by forgetting to take his medication, his heart racing. Although he’ll be out of the hospital and back at his home in Milwaukee late that same night, it’s a sober reminder of the increasingly fragility of the blues legacy.
“All right, we’re ready for who you came to see,” Smith announces. “He was there at the Last Supper, and played with Muddy Waters…the legendary Pinetop Perkins!”
Pinetop emerges from the kitchen entrance at stage left, leaning on the cane custom-made for him by a woman in Austin, Texas, with the likeness of piano keys carved and painted in vivid detail on the now-worn handle. Before he’s even made it to the carpeted two-step riser placed to help him climb onstage, dozens of audience members have bum-rushed to the front, some reaching over the besieged stagehand to paw his shoulders, others with cell-phone videos thrust forward to capture his appearance.
Pandemonium reigns as those remaining seated at tables yell for the rushers to move. The band has launched into “Chicken Shack” — the same tune that always brought Muddy Waters to the stage — and Pinetop seats himself at the stool in front of the upright and joins in. But it is soon discovered that someone must have disconnected the microphone to his vocals during the hubbub, and efforts by the soundman to rectify the problem temporarily increase the volume on his piano to a fuzzy distortion. “Chicken Shack” is in chaos.
None of this stops the worshippers from screaming with delight, the gawkers from jockeying for position, and the drunks and the blues freaks from dancing up a storm. Put them together and the raw passion Pinetop’s presence generates is at once heartening and a little unsettling. No one can deny that at least part of his appeal is from the curio factor of his sheer longevity: He was born before World War I, before prohibition, before women got the right to vote. As impressive as that may be, however, the longevity alone is piddling without the context of the blues. Because the blues — that roiling jumble of myth and music, spirit and struggle, history and hagiography — is the catalyst here, transforming a flesh-and-blood human into a galvanizing legend.
Pinetop Perkins is the blues, in the sense that the details of his existence bear witness to the difference between the crucible of this music and some script for a Karate Kid movie sequel. While romantic embellishment and even the occasional tall tale are part of the process of creating legends (we’ve all heard how guitarist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil, for example), the apocryphal flourishes are useless unless they are gilding something real and supplementing fundamental truths.
You see, Pinetop really did pick cotton from sunup to sundown on the plantation they called Honey Island just outside of his native Belzoni, Mississippi. He says his record haul for a day was 211 pounds and that he was paid 50 cents a day for his sharecropping labors. He really did learn to play music first on a “diddly bow” wire stretched between two nails, and then on guitar and piano, copying the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, and others whose names would never be recorded without his memory of them, such as “Terrible Sludge” and John Wesley. He really did run gambling houses and play the blues at juke joints and plantation parties and whorehouses and chicken fights, sometimes for as much as two or three dollars, sometimes for the right to take home and eat the dead chicken that lost the fight.
There’s more, much more. Living Blues magazine conducted a marvelous oral history with Pinetop a little over six years ago, and just hitting the highlights of his career to that point encompassed more than 10,000 words. Last year’s remarkable documentary film, Born In the Honey, abridges that biography some and still clocks in at more than an hour.