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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Interview - Pinetop Perkins and Willie "Big Eyes" Smith

Joseph William Perkins (July 7, 1913 – March 21, 2011), known by the stage name Pinetop Perkins, was an American blues musician, specializing in piano music. He played with some of the most influential blues and rock and roll performers in American history, and received numerous honors during his lifetime including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and induction into the Blues Hall of Fame.
Perkins was born in Belzoni, Mississippi. He began his career as a guitarist, but then injured the tendons in his left arm in a fight with a choirgirl in Helena, Arkansas. Unable to play guitar, Perkins switched to the piano, and also switched from Robert Nighthawk's KFFA radio program to Sonny Boy Williamson's King Biscuit Time. He continued working with Nighthawk, however, accompanying him on 1950's "Jackson Town Gal".



In the 1950s, Perkins joined Earl Hooker and began touring, stopping to record "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" (written by Pinetop Smith) at Sam Phillips' studio in Memphis, Tennessee. ("They used to call me Pinetop," he recalled, "because I played that song.") However, Perkins was only 15 years old in 1928, when Smith originally recorded "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie".

Perkins then relocated to Illinois and left music until Hooker convinced him to record again in 1968.

When Otis Spann left the Muddy Waters band in 1969, Perkins was chosen to replace him. He stayed for more than a decade, then left with several other musicians to form The Legendary Blues Band with Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, recording through the late 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s.

Although he appeared as a sideman on countless recordings, Perkins never had an album devoted solely to his artistry, until the release of After Hours on Blind Pig Records in 1988. The tour in support of the album also featured Jimmy Rogers and Hubert Sumlin.

His robust piano is fairly presented in On Top (1992), an easy-going recital of blues standards with his old Waters' associate, Jerry Portnoy on harmonica. In 1998 Perkins released the album Legends featuring guitarist Hubert Sumlin.

Perkins was driving his automobile in 2004 in La Porte, Indiana, when he 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 Nuno's on Sixth Street. In 2005, Perkins received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

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

The song "Hey Mr. Pinetop Perkins", performed by Perkins and Angela Strehli, plays on the common misconception that Perkins 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

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.

At age 97, he won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album for Joined at the Hip, an album he recorded with Willie "Big Eyes" Smith. Perkins thus became the oldest-ever Grammy winner, edging out comedian George Burns who had won in the spoken word category 21 years earlier (he had tied with Burns, at the age of 95, in 2004). A little more than a month later, Perkins died on 21 March 2011 at his home in Austin, Texas. At the time of his death, the musician had more than 20 performances booked for 2011. Shortly before that, 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." Along with David "Honeyboy" Edwards, he was one of the last two original Mississippi Delta blues musicians, and also to have a personal knowledge of and friendship with Robert Johnson.


Willie "Big Eyes" Smith (born January 19, 1936, Helena, Arkansas) is a Grammy Award-winning American blues vocalist, harmonica player, and multi-award winning drummer. He is best known for several stints with the Muddy Waters band beginning in the early 1960s.Born in Arkansas in 1936, Smith learned to play harmonica at age seventeen just after moving to Chicago, Illinois. Smith's influences included listening to 78s and to KFFA King Biscuit radio shows, some of which were broadcast from Helena's Miller Theater, where he saw guitar player Joe Willie Wilkins, and harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson II. On a Chicago visit in 1953 his mother took him to hear Muddy Waters at the Zanzibar club, where Henry Strong's harp playing inspired him to learn that instrument. In 1956, at the age of eighteen he formed a trio. He led the band on harp, Bobby Lee Burns played guitar, and Clifton James, who was the drummer. As "Little Willie" Smith he played in the Rocket Four, led by blues guitarist Arthur "Big Boy" Spires, and made recordings that were later reissued on the Delmark label. In 1955 Smith played harmonica on Bo Diddley's recording of the Willie Dixon song "Diddy Wah Diddy" for the Checker label.[citation needed] Drummers were in more demand than harp players, so Smith switched to drums and starting playing with Muddy Waters band. In 1959, Smith recorded with Waters on the 1960 album Muddy Waters Sings Big Bill Broonzy a tribute to Big Bill Broonzy

In 1961 Smith became a regular member of Muddy Water's band, which then consisted of George "Mojo" Buford, Luther Tucker, Pat Hare, and Otis Spann. By the mid '60s he'd left the band for more steady work as a cab driver. In the late '60s he rejoined Muddy's band and remained a permanent member until 1980. Smith appears on all of Muddy's Grammy Award winning albums, Hard Again, I'm Ready, They Call Me Muddy Waters, Muddy "Mississippi" Waters Live, The London Muddy Waters Session, and The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album, were released between 1971 and 1979. During his tenure with Waters, Smith is estimated to have participated in twelve sessions yielding eighty-four tracks.

In June 1980 Smith and other members of Muddy's band, Pinetop Perkins (piano), , Calvin Jones (bass), and Jerry Portnoy (harmonica), and Smith on drums, stuck out on their own, also recruiting veteran Chicago blues man Louis Myers (harmonica/guitar) to form The Legendary Blues Band, with the vocals shared by all. Later that year, Smith and the Legendary Blues Band appeared backing John Lee Hooker in the movie The Blues Brothers (1980). Smith was the only band member, besides Hooker, to appear onscreen in close-up. With varying personnel over the years, the Legendary Blues Band recorded seven albums, Life of Ease, Red Hot 'n' Blue, Woke Up with the Blues (nominated for a W. C. Handy Award), U B Da Judge, Prime Time Blues, and Money Talks, were recorded between 1981 to 1993. By the time Money Talks came out in 1993, Smith had become a very credible singer. The Legendary Blues Band toured with Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton.

His first solo recording started in 1995 with Bag Full of Blues, with Pinetop Perkins, harpist Kim Wilson, guitarists James Wheeler, Nick Moss, and Gareth Best, sticking with the Chicago blues sound. In 1999, Smith recorded with Muddy Waters son Big Bill Morganfield on his album Rising Son. Smith's album Way Back (2006), has 11 songs here, half of which he wrote. Backed by Bob Margolin and Frank Krakowski on guitar, Pinetop Perkins on piano, and guest shots by James Cotton and others. Willie's CD, Born in Arkansas, utilizes some of the best old-school blues players out there, including bassman Bob Stroger, pianist extraordinaire Barrelhouse Chuck, in-demand-by-everyone guitarist Billy Flynn, under-the-radar guitarist Little Frank Krakowski (who has worked with Willie for years) and top-notch drummer (as well as being Willie's son) Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith. In June 2010, Willie released Joined at the Hip with Pinetop Perkins. Joining these two in the studio were bassist Bob Stroger, Smith's son Kenny on drums, John Primer who was another Muddy Waters band alum, joins on lead guitar along with Frank Krakowski.

On February 13, 2011, he won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album for Joined at the Hip, an album he recorded with Pinetop Perkins.
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