13th May 2010 — Pianist Pinetop Perkins is one of the true originals. With his 100th birthday on the not-too-distant horizon, he is one of the last blues musicians who can legitimately claim direct roots in the Delta blues of the 1930s – a period that spawned such giants as Robert Johnson, Honeyboy Edwards and other titans of the of the deep South who laid the foundation for the blues as we know them today.
Born Willie Perkins in Belzoni, Mississippi, in July 1913, Pinetop has compiled a resume that spans nearly eighty years – as a guitarist and a pianist, then moving over to exclusively piano, following a knifing in 1942. One of the obvious highlights is his stint with Muddy Waters band for more than a decade. From 1969 through the early ‘80s, Perkins was an integral part of Muddy’s powerhouse combo that dominated the urbanized, electrified post-World War II blues scene. It was during these years that he forged an enduring friendship and prolific creative bond with Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, then the drummer in Muddy’s band.
The most recent chapter in this longstanding alliance is Joined at the Hip, a collaborative project shared by Pinetop and Smith that’s set for release on June 8, 2010, on Telarc International, a division of Concord Music Group. It was at the suggestion of manager Patricia Morgan that the two collaborate, with producer Michael Freeman offering the inspired title. The album is a mix of material written by Smith, along with a few chestnuts from the annals of Delta and Chicago blues.
Although Smith spent much of his earlier years behind the drum kit, Joined at the Hip solidifies Willie’s skills on the harp, developed over the last five years, along with handling the majority of the vocals. But regardless of Smith’s role in the band, the connection between him and Pinetop borders on the telepathic, and is evident among the 13 effortless tracks on this new recording.
“They’ve been the greatest of friends and musical partners for such a long time,” says Michael Freeman, who co-produced Pinetop’s star-studded 2008 Telarc release, Pinetop Perkins and Friends. “There’s just so much between them that goes unspoken onstage and in the recording process. Each knows exactly what the other is going to do at any given moment. It’s just what comes with playing with somebody for that long.”
Other players on Joined at the Hip include guitarists John Primer and Little Frank Krakowski, the latter of whom has been sitting in on Smith’s live gigs since his teenage years; bassist Bob Stroger, a longtime Pinetop sideman; and drummer Kenny Smith, Willie’s son.
The set kicks off with “Grown Up To Be A Man,” a straight-up shuffle that sounds like vintage Chicago, thanks to the engaging counterpoint between Smith’s edgy harp and Pinetop’s loose and easy approach to the 88s. Their uptempo treatment of John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson’s
“Cut That Out” in the following track showcases some lighthearted vocal call-and-response between Pinetop and Smith, as well as Little Frank’s fresh solo work on guitar.
Further in, “Walking Down the Highway” is a grinding, last-call number that Smith wrote specifically for Pinetop. Clocking in at more than six and a half minutes, the track makes plenty of room here for everyone to step in and deliver fine solo work.
Pinetop’s instrumental and vocal reading of the gospel standard “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” is an emotional centerpiece to the record. “We had the tape rolling while he was just tinkering around on the piano,” says Freeman. “He suddenly hit the intro, Kenny jumped in with the brushes, the band hit it and is the version he gave us. It was one of those special takes, and was extremely moving indeed. All of us in the control room all took a deep breath as the cut ended.”
Even more spontaneous is “Minor Blues,” an instrumental that came together very much in the moment. “Willie came up with the idea, the band just jumped in, and it just happened in one take.”
The closer, “Eyesight to the Blind,” comes from the songbook of the other Sonny Boy Williamson (aka Rice Miller). The midtempo shuffle brings it all back home by revisiting the classic Chicago sound that launched the set a dozen tracks earlier.
Pinetop will turn 97 just a few weeks after the release of Joined at the Hip, and he will continue to defy the years by performing and touring – not just in the States but around the world. All of which begs the obvious question: what keeps this living national treasure motivated and inspired?
“It’s the music,” says Freeman. “It’s the ability to play the music, and the ability to continue to do so in front of audiences all over the world. That keeps him going. I can’t imagine Pinetop without his music. When I visited him at his home in Austin a few years ago, I discovered that after he’s up and around at the beginning of his day, the first thing he does is tinker around on the piano. He’s always playing. He’s past the point where he’s saying things like, ‘I’m going to be 97 this summer.’ Now he merely says, ‘I’m going to be 100 soon.’ He’s planning on getting there.”