Born Joe Willie Perkins on July 7, 1913, on Honey Island Plantation near Belzoni, MS; married; wife's name Sarah (died, mid-1990s). Addresses: Record company--Blind Pig Records, P.O. Box 2344, San Francisco, CA 94126, website:

The career of blues pianist Pinetop Perkins recapitulates the entire history of the blues, from its origins in Mississippi in the early part of the twentieth century to its modern status as a classic form of American music. Perkins migrated with the blues itself, first to the Memphis, Tennessee, area and then to Chicago, where he performed in the band of blues great Muddy Waters at the height of Waters's fame. After striking out on his own, Perkins drew on a great wave of late-life creativity, becoming not just a living legend of the blues but a force driving the genre forward.

Pinetop Perkins was born Bob Perkins on July 7, 1913, on Honey Creek Plantation near Belzoni, Mississippi, and was later renamed Joe Willie Perkins. Some sources list a July 13 date, but Perkins himself gave July 7 as his birthday in a 2003 St. Louis Post-Dispatch interview. His father was a Baptist minister, his mother a Native American who bought him his first cigarette at age 10. "I came up the hard way," he told the Post-Dispatch. "My grandmother hit me upside the head with a board. Knocked me out. When I came to, she was still hitting me. I left there running."

Growing up in the heart of the Mississippi River delta, Perkins heard the music of guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson and of his two cousins, Elmore James and "Homesick" James. His parents also collected 78 rpm blues and jazz records, and he heard an unrecorded but beautifully named blues piano player named Tubba Sludge. Before long, Perkins was playing and singing in juke joints himself. Also, he told Stephen Kinzer of the New York Times, he played at chicken fights, "where your only pay was the dead chicken." During the day Perkins operated a mule-drawn plow on the Hopson Plantation near Clarksdale, Mississippi, later a blues historic site. He spent several years in St. Louis in the 1930s.

Around 1943, Perkins signed on with guitarist Robert Nighthawk and performed with him on the Helena, Arkansas, radio station KFFA. In the mid-1940s he participated in a practical joke, locking a chorus girl from the High Brown Follies troupe in the bathroom of a bar with a 55-gallon barrel of coal ashes. When the dancer finally escaped, she came out swinging a knife angrily, and Perkins's arm was the first thing the knife made contact with. "She did it to me, man," Perkins told reporter Dave Hoekstra of the Chicago Sun-Times, referring to the giant scar still visible on his arm 50 years later.

The incident damaged tendons in Perkins's arm, putting an end to his guitar career. But after he began concentrating on the piano, he bounced back quickly, joining a group of musicians led by Sonny Boy Williamson, who played on the King Biscuit Hour, a fabled blues radio program on KFFA. Perkins became an adept interpreter of a number called "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie," originally recorded in the 1920s by Clarence "Pinetop" Smith," and he recorded the piece for Memphis's Sun label in 1953. As Perkins became identified with "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie," he acquired the nickname of Pinetop himself.

In 1958 Perkins and his wife, Sarah, moved to Chicago after encouragement from Nighthawk. In the 1960s he played with Nighthawk's student, slide guitarist Earl Hooker, in blues clubs along Maxwell Street, one of the centers of Chicago's blues scene. Money was tight for several years, and Perkins was forced to live with Hooker's mother for a year. But things turned around in 1969, when Perkins got an invitation to join the band of Muddy "Mississippi" Waters, the dean of Chicago's electric blues guitarists. He accepted on the spot.

That job gave Perkins his first real measure of fame. Waters's band toured Europe, and Perkins appeared on Waters's classic later albums, such as Hard Again (1977) and I'm Ready (1978). Perkins recorded an album for a French label in 1976 and contributed tracks to the Alligator label's Living Chicago Blues compilations of the late 1970s. In 1980 Perkins and a group of other Waters sidemen formed the Legendary Blues Band and recorded several albums on the Rounder label. Perkins's singing was featured on those albums, and his characteristic piano style, with right-hand clusters evoking horn blasts, became familiar to blues fans. In 1988 Perkins made his belated United States solo album debut with After Hours, released on the Blind Pig label, with Little Mike and the Tornadoes, a group of young blues players, backing the septuagenarian pianist.

In the mid-1990s Perkins finally seemed to be on the brink of retirement. After the death of his wife in 1996, Perkins fell into depression and began to show the effects of decades of alcohol abuse. Maltreatment from his stepchildren didn't help. "Every time I went on the road they'd take something," he told the Sun-Times. "My clothes. My tools. My guns. ... Anything salable, they got it. Those kids could steal all the sweeting out of a gingersnap---and not break the crust."

When he was well over 80, Perkins embarked on a 12-step program to break his addiction to alcohol. "Changing your life at 84 is quite unthinkable for most people," his friend Steve Tomashefsky told the New York Times. "It shows how intensely Pinetop wants to be out there playing." Perkins moved to La Porte, Indiana, where he was befriended by blues enthusiast and bar owner Buck Levandoski. Recording seven albums between 1995 and 2004, Perkins became a beloved audience favorite at blues clubs and big outdoor festivals. A ten-time winner of the blues world's annual W.C. Handy Award, Perkins picked up a $10,000 National Heritage Fellowship, the United States government's highest traditional arts award, in 2000.

In 2004 Perkins released Ladies Man, an album pairing him with a roster of leading female blues singers such as Ruth Brown, Odetta, Susan Tedeschi, and Angela Strehli. He maintained a busy performing schedule into 2005, showing up in person at the Grammy Awards ceremony to accept a lifetime achievement award; and his Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Blues Album at age 91 made him the oldest nominee in the award's history. After he turned 90, the Ottawa Citizen asked him if he ever planned to retire. "Hell, they're still paying me." Perkins answered. "Why would I?"

by James M. Manheim

Pinetop Perkins's Career

Began performing as guitarist in juke joints in Mississippi, late 1920s; performed with guitarist Robert Nighthawk, KFFA radio, beginning in 1943; switched to piano after arm injury; performed on King Biscuit Time radio program in Helena, AR, late 1940s; toured South with Earl Hooker, early 1950s; recorded "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie," 1953; moved to Chicago, 1958; performed in clubs along blues center of Maxwell St.; joined band of Muddy Waters, 1969; with other Waters band members, formed Legendary Blues Band, 1980; recorded debut solo album After Hours, 1988; continued to perform and record frequently, 1990--.

Pinetop Perkins's Awards

United States National Heritage Fellowship, 2000; ten consecutive W.C. Handy Awards; Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement, 2004.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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