Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Giant Passes

by Robert Horn

Rural Mississippi still had a lot of Civil War veterans in 1913. News of the automobile had gotten around to many and ten years earlier a couple bothers in North Carolina flew a machine for about 100 feet. In terms of musicians in Mississippi there were some giants about to appear on the scene. Charlie Patton wrote his first songs in 1910. Eddie James "Son" House was born in 1902, but the music world had not yet heard of him since he was only 11 years old. Robert Johnson also was born in rural Mississippi, but in 1913 he was only 2 years old. It was into this world that Joe Willie Perkins was born July 7, 1913, on the Honey Island plantation near Belzoni, Mississippi. The nickname "Pinetop" came years later when his playing of “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” (a popular 1920s recording by pianist Clarence “Pinetop” Smith) caught the attention of many and became his signature tune.

Pinetop Perkins was there when those we sometimes credit as being the founders of the blues were beginning their careers. The birth of the Blues and Pinetop Perkins were part of each others' world. Years later he was at the scene of other profound moments in music history. When Les Paul invented the electric guitar and Muddy Waters got one, the blues became electric. Like on the Sistine Chapel, electricity shot between two fingers. The black finger of rural Mississippi bluesmen now in Chicago pointed down, and the young white finger of much of teenage America (and then teenage England) pointed up. With Electric Mud the blues became pregnant and they named the baby Rock N Roll. Pinetop played the piano for the drama unfolding that inspired the likes of Mich Jaeger, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and all the others who we hear everyday.

One of those that Pinetop directly influenced was a school boy who walked passed an open window on his way home from school and heard the piano music inside. That kid set out to play piano and in the early 1950's his song "Rockin' 88" was said to be the first Rock N Roll song. And while Ike Turner played piano well, I still think his teacher played better. His teacher died on March 21 , 2011 in his sleep, of cardiac arrest. What a life and what an influence.

More on Pinetop Perkins...
  • For an informative obituary on Pinetop Perkins, Click Here
  • Interview with Pinetop Perkins at age 95 on NPR:


  1. His Grammy Award at age 97 showed he had more to give. He was amazing.

  2. A longer article will appear in The Bluesletter later.