The photo of the week is a still shot from Perkins at the Portland Waterfront Blues Festival on July 4th, 2007. Here, despite the difficulties that came with age, he managed to maneuver his hands as the notes called for and deliver the eloquent tunes he’d always been known for. Before he got off the stage, he was presented with a birthday cake by fellow Chicago blues man Hubert Sumlin, in celebration of his 94th birthday.
Being self-taught did not mean Perkins was at a disadvantage, because he learned the blues by being completely immersed in the world it was born. Joe Willie Perkins was born on a cotton plantation near Belzoni, Mississippi, in 1913, but by the end of his life, he had toured the entire country, and continued to do so, as well as record, until the very end. In fact, just a month before his passing, he received the Grammy Award for best traditional blues album, for “Joined at the Hip: Pinetop Perkins & Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith, making him the oldest Grammy winner ever, at 97 years old.
He had his own band later in his career, but Perkins also played with everyone, from Muddy Waters to Earl Hooker, Robert Nighthawk to B.B. King. The easiness with which he swooped from high falsettos to rumbling low notes ignited the stage and drove the audience into a stupor of awe every time, and all from a man who once admitted that sheet music looked like dog droppings to him.
Not too many musicians can boast about an 80-year-long career. And far fewer can list as many legendary names in their collaborative repertoire as Pinetop Perkins could. He is heralded as the premier blues piano player by many, including Bruce Iglauer, founder of Chicago’s Alligator Records, and few can rival such an accolade.