Tribute: Remembering Chicago blues legend Pinetop Perkins | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Paying tribute to blues legend Pinetop Perkins

On March 21, 2001, the Blues world lost a legend when Joseph Willie "Pinetop" Perkins passed away at his home in Austin, Texas.

Born in Belzoni, Mississippi in 1913, Mr. Perkins started out on guitar. But when a woman slashed his arm with a knife, he was forced to switch to piano. In the '30s, he gigged around the Delta. In the '40s, he played with Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Nighthawk. A kid named Ike Turner used to carry Nighthawk’s amps, and he idolized Perkins, who taught Turner how to pay Boogie Woogie style piano. Because it’s Iike playing keys on the 1951 song "Rocket 88", and because that tune is considered by some historians to be the first rock ‘n roll song, Perkins is credited by some for helping invent rock ‘n roll.

He did a short stint in the 1950s with BB King. And while touring the south with Earl Hooker, the pair stopped by the famed Sun Studios in Memphis. There, they recorded Clarence "Pinetop" Smith’s "Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie", and the nickname stuck.

Perkins moved to Chicago in the late '50s, and left music for a time. However, when the piano chair opened up in Muddy Water’s band in 1968, Pinetop Perkins got the call. He would play with Muddy for over a decade. But for all the notoriety and respect Perkins garnered as a sideman, it wasn’t until he was in his '70s that he began to lead a band and put his own playing front and center.

Perkins made up for lost time, releasing 15 albums in 15 years, and headlining venues from small clubs-he packed SPACE in Evanston last year-to major festivals around the world. He became the oldest person to win a Grammy last month for his album ‘Joined at the Hip’ with fellow Chicago blues legend Willie "Big Eyes" Smith.

Pinetop Perkins was so active, he had 20 gigs on his calendar when he passed away Monday at the age of 97. A public memorial will be held for him tomorrow in Austin, and Perkins will be buried in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

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