Treetops and Bluesman | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Treetops and Bluesman

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Pinetop Perkins is one of the oldest living bluesmen of a long line of Mississippi-born blues musicians.

Born and reared in Wisconsin, I grew up believing Chicago was the birthplace of the blues. Since then, I've lived all over--London, Edinburgh, Phoenix, Dallas, Boston, Roanoke and Lynchburg--and no one challenged my false precept. In 2008, I debated: Should I remain a regional health-care system's corporate architect or make a difference designing hospitals elsewhere? I opted for the latter, and in January 2009, my Mississippi adventure began.

After arriving in the Deep South, I heard people referencing blues musicians and wondered how Mississippians knew them. One day, I spied a Mississippi Blues Trail marker identifying the spot in Greenwood where Robert Johnson was reputedly laid to rest. (Three Mississippi towns claim to be Robert Johnson's burial site: Greenwood, Quito and Morgan City, but everyone agrees he was born in Hazelhurst.). At this historic respite near the Tallahatchie River, I had an epiphany: Maybe the blues wasn't born in Chicago.

B.B. King was born in Itta Bena; Albert King born in Indianola; John Lee Hooker in Clarksdale; Howlin' Wolf in West Point; Muddy Waters in Rolling Forks. The list goes on. My move to Mississippi proved I'd only scratched the surface and had to re-learn the blues. Awaiting me was a cornucopia of blues artists and an understanding of the Delta, cotton plantations, Parchman Farm, juke joints, Trumpet Records, Farish Street, segregation and the Chicago migration. I invite you to take this Mississippi blues journey with me.

Specific chord progressions characterize the blues form of music (found in jazz, R&B and rock 'n' roll). The 12-bar blues, or "blues change," is the most common. You can play the blues in any key; however, mastering the blues means mastering the 12-bar blues structure.

Mississippi has a select list of elder blues statesmen performing and mentoring the next generation of artists. These icons are the storytellers and patriarchs who continue on. A few of those are Honeyboy Edwards (95), T-Model Ford (90) and B.B. King (85); the senior member of the group is Pinetop Perkins (97).

Joseph William "Pinetop" Perkins was born July 7, 1913, in Belzoni. After permanently injuring his left arm tendons during a fight with a choir girl in Helena, Ark., he switched from playing guitar to piano.

The legendary Clarence "Pinetop" Smith (who acquired his nickname because of his penchant for tree climbing) mentored Perkins when he was in his early teens. Smith was one of the earliest pianists to record a boogie-woogie piano solo and wrote the lyrics to "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie," which he recorded in December 1928 before a gunshot killed him during a dancehall fight in Chicago. Perkins had composed the signature tune.

In the 1950s, Perkins toured with Earl Hooker, stopping briefly to record "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" at Sam Phillips' Memphis studio. "They used to call me Pinetop because I played that song," Perkins recalls in the fall, talking to me.

With performances few and far between and not paying the bills, Pinetop stopped touring for a time and settled in Chicago. That is, until Hooker convinced Perkins to record again in 1968. A year later, when Otis Spann left Muddy Waters' band, band members chose Perkins to replace him. He remained with Muddy for 12 years, and it was during this time the common misconception that Perkins (not Smith) had penned "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" surfaced.

In 1980, Perkins had a cameo role in "The Blues Brothers." In the film, he stood outside Aretha's Soul Food Cafe arguing with John Lee Hooker about who wrote "Boom Boom." That same year, he left Muddy, joining several other musicians to form The Legendary Blues Band with Willie "Big Eyes" Smith. The group performed and recorded from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. In 1987, Perkins also made an appearance in "Angel Heart" as a member of guitarist Toots Sweet's band.

In La Porte, Ind., in 2004, a train hit the car Perkins was driving. The car was totaled but, fortunately, 91-year old Pinetop was not seriously injured. A few months later, Junior Lockwood (89, at the time), Mule Townsend (95) and Honeyboy Edwards (then 89) joined Perkins for a concert in Dallas. The subsequent "Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas" CD, released three years later, received a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album.

In October 2010, I had the opportunity to present a framed pen and ink drawing of Pinetop to the spry 97-year-old musician at the Pinetop Perkins Blues Museum & Cultural Heritage Center (17150 Highway 49, Belzoni). The museum is a labor of love for Helen Sims, who toiled to make her vision for a museum a reality. That fall afternoon, Pinetop, who currently lives in Austin, Texas, sat next to the museum's piano, played one note and said, "I won't play anything that's out of tune."

I guess it's true: Blues isn't the music, it's the emotion.

Born and reared in Wisconsin, I grew up believing Chicago was the birthplace of the blues. Since then, I've lived all over--London, Edinburgh, Phoenix, Dallas, Boston, Roanoke and Lynchburg--and no one challenged my false precept. In 2008, I debated: Should I remain a regional health-care system's corporate architect or make a difference designing hospitals elsewhere? I opted for the latter, and in January 2009, my Mississippi adventure began.

After arriving in the Deep South, I heard people referencing blues musicians and wondered how Mississippians knew them. One day, I spied a Mississippi Blues Trail marker identifying the spot in Greenwood where Robert Johnson was reputedly laid to rest. (Three Mississippi towns claim to be Robert Johnson's burial site: Greenwood, Quito and Morgan City, but everyone agrees he was born in Hazelhurst.). At this historic respite near the Tallahatchie River, I had an epiphany: Maybe the blues wasn't born in Chicago.

B.B. King was born in Itta Bena; Albert King born in Indianola; John Lee Hooker in Clarksdale; Howlin' Wolf in West Point; Muddy Waters in Rolling Forks. The list goes on. My move to Mississippi proved I'd only scratched the surface and had to re-learn the blues. Awaiting me was a cornucopia of blues artists and an understanding of the Delta, cotton plantations, Parchman Farm, juke joints, Trumpet Records, Farish Street, segregation and the Chicago migration. I invite you to take this Mississippi blues journey with me.

Specific chord progressions characterize the blues form of music (found in jazz, R&B and rock 'n' roll). The 12-bar blues, or "blues change," is the most common. You can play the blues in any key; however, mastering the blues means mastering the 12-bar blues structure.

Mississippi has a select list of elder blues statesmen performing and mentoring the next generation of artists. These icons are the storytellers and patriarchs who continue on. A few of those are Honeyboy Edwards (95), T-Model Ford (90) and B.B. King (85); the senior member of the group is Pinetop Perkins (97).

Joseph William "Pinetop" Perkins was born July 7, 1913, in Belzoni. After permanently injuring his left arm tendons during a fight with a choir girl in Helena, Ark., he switched from playing guitar to piano.

The legendary Clarence "Pinetop" Smith (who acquired his nickname because of his penchant for tree climbing) mentored Perkins when he was in his early teens. Smith was one of the earliest pianists to record a boogie-woogie piano solo and wrote the lyrics to "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie," which he recorded in December 1928 before a gunshot killed him during a dancehall fight in Chicago. Perkins had composed the signature tune.

In the 1950s, Perkins toured with Earl Hooker, stopping briefly to record "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" at Sam Phillips' Memphis studio. "They used to call me Pinetop because I played that song," Perkins recalls in the fall, talking to me.

With performances few and far between and not paying the bills, Pinetop stopped touring for a time and settled in Chicago. That is, until Hooker convinced Perkins to record again in 1968. A year later, when Otis Spann left Muddy Waters' band, band members chose Perkins to replace him. He remained with Muddy for 12 years, and it was during this time the common misconception that Perkins (not Smith) had penned "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" surfaced.

In 1980, Perkins had a cameo role in "The Blues Brothers." In the film, he stood outside Aretha's Soul Food Cafe arguing with John Lee Hooker about who wrote "Boom Boom." That same year, he left Muddy, joining several other musicians to form The Legendary Blues Band with Willie "Big Eyes" Smith. The group performed and recorded from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. In 1987, Perkins also made an appearance in "Angel Heart" as a member of guitarist Toots Sweet's band.

In La Porte, Ind., in 2004, a train hit the car Perkins was driving. The car was totaled but, fortunately, 91-year old Pinetop was not seriously injured. A few months later, Junior Lockwood (89, at the time), Mule Townsend (95) and Honeyboy Edwards (then 89) joined Perkins for a concert in Dallas. The subsequent "Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas" CD, released three years later, received a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album.

In October 2010, I had the opportunity to present a framed pen and ink drawing of Pinetop to the spry 97-year-old musician at the Pinetop Perkins Blues Museum & Cultural Heritage Center (17150 Highway 49, Belzoni). The museum is a labor of love for Helen Sims, who toiled to make her vision for a museum a reality. That fall afternoon, Pinetop, who currently lives in Austin, Texas, sat next to the museum's piano, played one note and said, "I won't play anything that's out of tune."

I guess it's true: Blues isn't the music, it's the emotion.

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