Editor’s note: The only thing I can say in regards to the following piece is “What the fuck is wrong with me?” OK, it’s not the only thing, just the most salient thing.
Back in the fall of 2003, I was fortunate enough to interview a 90-year-old blues piano legend named Pinetop Perkins in Clarksdale, Miss. I recently transcribed the tape (for the second time, to be fair. The first was lost when our old desktop computer got zapped) and marveled at 1) what a wonderful interview he was and 2) what an unadulterated idiot I am for letting it collect dust for nine years.
Perhaps I thought he would live to be 190. He didn’t. He did live and play for another seven-plus years before he passed away in March of last year at 97. It took me another 15 months to unearth this interview. I’m a sad, sad man.
A note on how it came about:
We saw Joseph William “Pinetop” Perkins play at the King Biscuit Blues Festival across the river in Helena, Ark., on Friday, Oct. 10. Afterward we wandered behind the stage, on the off-limits side of a barricade of orange plastic fencing, in an effort to spot him. We saw him sitting by a trailer, but too far away for any plausible contact.
I’m a total pussy. Not so Becky. She clambered over that fencing, sidled alongside the back of the trailer like a latter-day Emma Peel, waltzed right up to Pinetop Perkins and said hello. Meanwhile I’m cowering in the distance, too scared to watch. I walked circles around a barbecue vendor on the east side of Cherry Street. Every time I got to the rear of the barbecue stand I peaked to see what was going on with Becky’s Beatlesque assault on the unsuspecting nonegenarian.
He smiled broadly and handed her a business card. Seeing the happy turn of events, I rushed in to join the fray.
His handler, an officious woman named Pat Morgan, looked up and frowned at the sight of interlopers accosting her meal ticket. She yelled a bit, then snatched the business card from Becky’s fingers.
“He can’t hear you,” she yelled. “He’s practically deaf.”
That claim would prove to be flagrantly false. In any case, she was pissed. She wanted to know my pedigree.
“Who do you represent?” she demanded. “What do you write for? (That, I must admit, remains a good question. Certainly not for enjoyment.)
In Ms. Morgan’s defense, she did tell us about the annual Clarksdale soiree honoring Perkins, scheduled for Sunday across at the old Hopson plantation.
We showed up Sunday, and I managed to record nice interviews with a couple bluesmen, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and Bob Stroger. Both were extremely nice. Those interviews are languishing in a box, too.
One little anecdote about Smith, who died last year at 75: I noted his eyes did not appear inordinately large, and asked him where he got the name. He explained Muddy Waters hung it on him when he joined his band as a drummer around 1960.
“When I started playing with him, he said, ‘You need a nickname. From now on you’re ‘Big Eyes,’ motherfucker.'”
We enjoyed the show. I even got to chat with Perkins for a few minutes, enough to wrangle a little time with him on Monday morning at the reconditioned sharecropper’s shack he was staying in hereabouts, part of a “bed and beer” establishment called the Shack Up Inn. He’d lived and worked during the war years, so it was something like old home for him.
He was relaxing on the porch when we arrived Monday. As I fumbled about in my usual ham-handed fashion trying to launch an interview, he got up, went inside and sat down at the piano. He was shoeless. He wore a black sock on one foot, nothing on the other. He fooled about on the keys, favoring us with a private show, all the while complaining about how out of tune the piano was.
He finished a song he got up and stretched. Wary of his hearing deficiencies, real and imagined, I shouted out, “How are you doing this morning, Mr. Perkins?”
In fact I shouted it several times, until he was ready with a response. It was worth the wait.
“Oh, still trying to make it,” he said with a moan. “Tough titty, but I gotta suck it.”
That’s the way the it began. If you want to read his equally wondrous closing, you’ll have to go the bottom.
Nine years is long enough. I’ll try not fret too much over the narrative or worry about transitions. Else it might never see the light of day. In any case, I don’t want to detract from the words of Pinetop Perkins. Too much. Here goes …
He moaned a bit, but I swear he did look pretty good.
He was in pretty good shape, as a woman I interviewed once said about her failing husband, for the shape he was in.
He was Pinetop Perkins, 90-year-old ambassador for the blues.
Pinetop Perkins, for the uninitiated, was a piano legend who spent his formative years wandering up and down the Mississippi Delta with the likes of Robert Nighthawk and Sonny Boy Williamson II before coming to prominence late in life, first as a sideman with Muddy Waters and then as a Grammy-winning solo artist.
“I’m doing pretty good for 90,” he said. “I think so doing fairly good. I thank the Lord for it.”
Before we found a rhythm, our chat was interrupted by a wandering college professor who was dragging his students on a sociological expedition through the Mississippi Delta. He busted right in without bothering to excuse himself or beg indulgence for hijacking my interview, blurting out, “Mr. Perkins, I hear you don’t play the blues on Sunday.” And then he proceeded to ask the obvious question as to why this was.
Fucker. I’d still like to punch him in the nose.
Maybe I hated him because he was unafraid to ask the obvious questions. Obvious questions possess the power to produce useful responses.
“My daddy, he was a Baptist preacher. My mother she was real religious woman,” Pinetop said. “I always told try to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. I always try to do the best with it. I don’t go fishing on Sunday. I don’t play solitaire on Sunday.”
Perkins was a wonderful talker, even if he described himself as a “squawker, not a talker.” He colored his phrases with the down-home idioms of his youth. He liked to punctuate his sentences with exclamations like “ooh-wee,” and “umm-hmm.” He’d say a name, pause, and then repeat the name with greater emphasis.
Anyway, this led to a discussion of Mr. Perkins’ upbringing. It was hardly ideal, yet probably typical for a black kid growing up in the Delta in the years prior to World War II.
“Him and my mother busted up when I was around 7-8 years old,” he said. “I don’t know what happened to them. They didn’t send me to school like they ought’ve. So I didn’t get no good schooling. So I did the best I could. I come up the hard way.”
He lived for a time with his grandmother, Mary Walton. She was the scourge of his youth.
“She was a Creek (he pronounced it “Crick”) Indian,” he said with a trace of lingering awe. “Man! she was mean as a junkyard dog. She busted a quart bottle over my head and knocked me out. And when I come to, I left there running.
“I was young. I didn’t go back no more.”
He was, he guesses, 11 or 12 then. He went back to living with his mama. He picked up the guitar, learning songs by ear off the record player.
Who was the first guitar player he heard?
“It’s been so long ago, I’ve forgotten,” he said. “Some of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s stuff. Then I learned Robert Johnson. Listened to records on a phonograph. We used to call them gramophones.
“Anytime I wanted to hear a number or two like that, my mama would buy the record for me,” he said. “I picked it up from there.”
His Wikipedia entry notes that, in addition to winning two Grammy Awards in his 90s, including one at 97 for an album he recorded with Big Eyes Smith, he enjoyed a personal relationship with Robert Johnson. He was unclear about that.
In any case, he got familiar with the music of Robert Johnson.
“I got into something I didn’t hardly want to get into, but I did it,” he said. “Playing the blues. Playing them guitars. I listened to the records and picked it up off the records.”
He does remember his first guitar.
“First guitar I had, a man bought me a little guitar called a Stella,” he said. “He heard me playing a guitar, he went and bought me one. I forgot his name. I was young then. Boy, I could play it.”
He said he liked the hard-edged sound of Delta luminaries like Johnson and Charley Patton, but his tastes transcended the region of his birth.
“I listened to Blind Lemon Jefferson and all those others playing them guitars,” he said. “Blind Blake and stuff. Man, I just went to playing. Charley Patton, oh man. This other fella that made that (iconic deal with the devil) at the crossroads, Robert Johnson. Robert Johnson? I said ‘whew!’
“I liked the way Robert Johnson played. That Robert Johnson could play, boy. I liked old Blind Lemon and them, too. Yeah.”
When he was in his late 20s, he hooked up with the guitar player Robert Nighthawk (born Robert Lee McCollum). The two formed a musical partnership and worked the juke-joint circuit up and down the Delta.
“It was down around round little old place out here called Vance, Mississippi, where I first met him at,” Perkins said. “That ain’t too far from here.”
Where’d they play?
“Every which-where man,” he said. “We had no certain place.”
Wherever a bluesman went, he arrived at a place situated inevitably at the intersection of whiskey and women. Whiskey, women and gambling. And jealous men.
It led a lot of musicians into trouble.
“Yeah, it would,” Pinetop said. “Cause they’re out there dancing and shaking their hips and stuff, them bluesmen looking at them, aw man, they get in trouble. Umm-hmm. That whiskey make you want to do wrong anyhow. You get high, man, you want to get in trouble then. Yesssir.”
Danger lurked wherever they went. It was never far away.
“I remember playing at a place, uh, where was that at, Greenwood, Mississippi,” he began. “Some boys got to fighting back in the back end there, shooting up one another. I had to jump over a tractor to get out of that house. There was a tractor sitting outdoors there, I just jumped over that thing. Whoa, man! they was in the gambling house, someone got mad about something. They had pistols and started shooting. Some of them got killed.”
Somewhere along the way, he picked up the piano. It would serve him well when fate stepped in and robbed him of his guitar-playing acumen.
He even learned how to tune the piano.
“I was playing guitar and traveling,” he said. “I started playing piano in later years. A man learned me how to fix them. Scott Cameron, he learned me how to fix pianos. He used to tune pianos with a tuning hammer. Shoot, I didn’t do that. I’d get my guitar, take it off the guitar and put it on the piano. And that was fast. Folk said I was cheating. They said I was cheating.”
In addition to playing music and tuning pianos, he did whatever he could to make extra money. He worked on farms and even made whiskey.
“Yeah, I used to work on those farms, man,” he said. “I drove a tractor too out here. I made it do everything but talk out here. I used to have some fun with a tractor. Drive those mules back then, too. Then I found out the peoples eat that. They’d eat mules eat like pork meat. They used to eat horses, too.
“Yeah. I don’t want none of it, though. I don’t want no mule meat or horse. They say that horse meat tastes good, but I ain’t never had none of it. Um-hmm.”
After a couple of years on the road with Nighthawk, he got an offer from Sonny Boy Williamson (Aleck Miller). It was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“Sonny Boy come up and told me, ‘Hey, there’s a man named Mr. Moore, Max Moore, was at that King Biscuit outfit,” he said. “Mr. Moore wants you to come over there with us. He going to pay you the money and put you on the air with us.
“I said, ‘Hey Robert, I got to go man.’ So I left that boy. and went with Sonny Boy.”
The story of his transition to the piano has been told, but it bears repeating, as it underscores the peril that stalked the bluesman’s milieu.
The trouble took place at the Dreamland Cafe in Helena.
“Happened when I was on the King Biscuit program in Helena, Arkansas, with Sonny Boy,” he said. “Well, me and the boys was back in the back drinking whiskey, getting high. Crazy woman come in there, boy, and went in the bathroom and showing all her nakedness. I went over to the bathroom and shut the door. Her used-to-be husband went and put a barrel of ashes against that door so she couldn’t get out of there.”
When she busted out after a couple hours of incarceration, she brandished a knife.
“She started shanking the first man she laid eyes on. She lit in on me with that knife,” he said. “Got me right there (points to biceps). I tell you, I was bleeding like a stuck pig. Hurt me so bad, I never could play the guitar no more.
“And I can’t play the piano like I used to. I used to have bass roaring like thunder on the piano. I can’t do it no more. I got to have a bass man with me.”
That girl, he said, had a bit of a crush on him. He’d seen enough of her, though.
“Yeah, that girl got me,” he said. “I was scared of her then. She wanted me to be her boyfriend. I want to take care of you, she said. Oh no, I said, you like to kill me, You want to finish me now it looks like. No-nooo.”
Of course, as a black man in the Jim Crow South, it wasn’t like he had access to state-of-the-art health care. His tendons were severed. They never recovered fully.
But he did OK for himself.
“I done pretty good,” he said. “Um-hmm. I started playing piano again with one hand, man, with Sonny Boy and them. I played with my arm in a sling for long time on the air.”
Sonny Boy could be a bit of a hard character, but he gave Pinetop no trouble.
“Sonny Boy, my first wife was his first cousin, a girl called Adeline,” Perkins said. “Never forget her name. So me and him got along fine. But everybody said he was a meanie. He would jump on people now. Wouldn’t take him long to get mad at somebody. Of course, he liked to gamble, see. If somebody did him wrong back there in the back room or something, man he jumped on him back in there. He didn’t mess with me, though. He liked me.”
I allowed it seemed that his genial nature probably helped him avoid a lot of dust-ups.
“Yeah. I’ve always been friendly,” he said. “I been friendly all my days. I try to be friendly all the time. I don’t like to be mean, nawwh. I had a mean grandma, though. She was mean! Man, wow!”
Here’s some footage, sadly without sound but fascinating nonetheless, featuring Sonny Boy Williamson playing on King Biscuit Time in 1942 and 1952.
I asked him to talk about a kid he once mentored on the piano, Ike Turner. (As an aside, I saw Ike Turner and his band play with Perkins on a small stage at the Chicago Blues Festival in 2001. It was a tribute to Perkins. It was the highlight of the festival. At one point Turner got up from the piano and draped a Fender Stratocaster around his neck and absolutely ripped that stage apart. I was astonished.)
“Yeah, I taught him how to play piano,” Pinetop said. “Willie Kizart taught him how to play guitar. Willie Kizart, umm-hmm. We had a band out there on Tutwiler for a while. We had a nice band, didn’t we? Little Willie Kizart could play guitar, and his daddy could play guitar. His daddy could play piano too, like me. Lee Kizart. Man, we had a thing going.”
At some point in our chat he started fiddling the piano again. For amusement of the college kids, he did a little “Dragnet” riff. Dum de-dum-dum.
“Dragnet, who wears the badge? Joe Friday,” he said.
Then he launched into a version of the Leroy Carr classic, “How Long Blues.”
It sounded something like this:
As an itinerant musician wandering the Delta in the late 1930s and early 40s, he could hardly have conceived of the places the music ultimately would take him. But when American folk revivalists and then British rock musicians turned on to the music, things began to change for the older bluesmen.
And so a guy who couldn’t enter a white man’s house through the front door as a young man one day found himself playing at the White House.
“I played at the White House three times,” he said. “Last time coming out of there, (when) Bush (got) in. Clinton, he paid me $10,000 for two songs.
“I played for the other fellow (Jimmy Carter) with Muddy Waters,” he said. “We didn’t get too much then because we were playing with a band. Sidemen didn’t get too much of nothing. Muddy Waters was the one got the money. Muddy Waters got the money. Muddy Waters was getting the money; we was getting the funny.”
Here’s a clip of Muddy Waters doing “Long Distance Call,” with a band that included Pinetop Perkins and Willie Smith.
I asked him about his favorite piano players.
“I used to like to hear that boy to hear play, man oh shoot, used to like to hear that boy play that was out yonder in New Orleans,” he said.
He couldn’t come up with the name immediately. I asked him if he was talking about Professor Longhair.
“Professor Loong-hayer!” he exclaimed in recognition. “I just liked his style of playing, that New Orleans style he had there. I couldn’t get none of it to go, but I liked what he did. I liked that New Orleans style. I want to get up there and dance. Yeah.”
No wonder. He’s the ‘Fess (aka Roy Byrd) at the 1973 Montreaux Jazz Festival.
“I never could play play no jazz music,” he said. “Had too many minors and sharps in it for me. Bad news.”
Before he met Nighthawk, he did a solo gig providing musical accompaniment to chicken fights.
“I was playing by myself,” he said. “And every time those people yonder around Greenwood, I think it was, yes, they had them chicken fights out through there. They come get me to play. They had a piano sitting way up on the thing up there and I’m playing by myself. Wasn’t making no money, aw, getting about $2 or $3. I think I done had something. Nothing. Make $5, boy, I was looking like I’m rich. Ahhh.”
As brutal as it was, at least the chickens didn’t go to waste.
“Everybody was out there betting on them chickens fighting, and every time one of them kill one another, man, they always take em and put em on the thing there and cook them,” he said. “Oooh’ooh. Cook that chicken. And then you eat them. While the chickens was getting killed and fighting out there, the folks was betting on them. Them white people betting money on them chickens. Greenwood, Mississippi.”
Greenwood was a hub of the Delta circuit. Robert Johnson was playing near there when he was fatally poisoned in 1938.
“A lot of people around Greenwood were playing,” he said. “Around Leland, too. Greenville, all down every which way. Oh boy. And there was a place out there I was playing by myself and away after a while I got two more boys to come in there with me. Called them Fiddlin’ Will and, what’s that other boy’s name? Not Houston. What’s the other boy’s name? Boy played guitar … Tom High Roller. Tom High Roller and Fiddlin’ Will. I was on piano. Playing for Horace Broomfield. Vance, Mississippi. Never forget it.
“Whoa! We used to have some fun out there.”
The best band he played with? He thought about this for a second.
“It was Robert Nighthawk,” he said. “I like the way Robert did them slides and stuff on that guitar. Anna Lee. Sweet Black Angel … I could play behind him. Umm-hmm. We had a drummer. We called him Shorty. Little short fellow. We called him Shorty.
“Aw man, we were all everywhere. We were on them highways them back in them days. Oohboy. Him and I went every-which-where, man. Because everybody like that way Robert played, you know. That boy could really sing and play.”
And there was the time he nearly got caught making moonshine.
“Moonshine? I like that. Yeahhh,” he said. “I used to make it myself. When I was around, up in these parts. Used to make that stuff, man. Oohhh. I could make it, too. Had a gauge to gauge it by. I’d make it and sell it. Make it and sell it. Yeah.
“It was out there around Tutwiler. I forget that plantation we was out there on. Me and Lee (Kizart) and all us. Man, we was making that whiskey out there, boy. We had barrels sitting up out there.
“Then the Man caught Lee and they got stuck coming to my house; couldn’t get there. I left that white boy and his brother who had come in there with a car, looking for something (to buy whiskey). Lee over there the man, the FBI got him. He was coming out there to get us. He got Lee, but he didn’t get me. But I left there. I poured all that stuff out on the ground and everywhere, went and left.”
Then he offered an anecdote that included David “Honeyboy” Edwards, another of the last surviving Delta blues artists who died last August at 96.
“Mama was staying with me then,” he said. “Boy, she loved her whiskey. She could drink it. My mama. My mama Lily. She been gone a long time. My daddy (Sandy Perkins) too.
I kept my mother with me a little while, every once in a while. She liked to travel around. I think she liked young men to take her different places. So, I liked her to have her fun. She had her fun coming up. Ohhh.
“Had a boy named called him ‘Honey Boy.’ I know you know Honeyboy. He was younger than me, but she liked em young. I said, “look here boy, you trying to be my daddy.’ Yeah, he snuck around my mother. … He was having fun. And I was having fun with the girls. ”
Needless to say, when I heard the part about Honeyboy Edwards again, I felt even more stupid for abandoning this story. But you can’t dwell on the negative.
Pinetop Perkins never did.
“That’s good to have fun with the girls,” he said. “Boy, you been into something then. You be all into something when you going down and playing with the girls going on. Umm-umm. There was huggin’ and a kissin’ goin’ on,”
And with that, he called an end to the interview with his own singular flair.
“All right,” he said. “Good deal from Mobile, Alabama.”
I shook his hand. He was more excited by the hug he got from Becky.
“Ooh-wee,” he said with a shake of his head. “She look sweet. Hmm. I bet she sweet. I ain’t never tasted her, but I’ll bet she sweet.”
And that’s the way it ended.