Pinetop Perkins, Blues Piano Player, Waters Sideman, Dies at 97

Pinetop Perkins, the Mississippi Delta-born piano player who performed with bluesman Muddy Waters for more than a decade and started a solo career in his 70s, has died. He was 97.

He died today at his home in Austin, Texas, the Associated Press reported, citing his manager, Hugh Southard. The cause was cardiac arrest.

Perkins got his nickname from “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie,” a song by another pianist that he recorded for Sun Records. The title described his style of playing rhythm patterns with his left hand and melodies and improvisation with his right.

Waters, known as the father of Chicago blues, hired Perkins in 1969 and featured him on four albums made in a 1970s comeback. While Perkins’s first U.S. solo album wasn’t released until 1988, he made up for lost time by recording 15 albums in 15 years.

“I just wanna make people happy and make a dollar or two,” Perkins told Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper in 2006. “It’s all I know to do.”

Perkins outlived most of his peers even though he smoked from the age of 9, battled alcoholism into his 80s and ate at McDonald’s Corp.’s fast-food restaurants daily.

In 2007, he became the oldest musician to receive a Grammy Award. He was honored for playing on the album “Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas.” Two years earlier, he won a lifetime-achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which sponsors the Grammy awards.

The Blues Foundation named its piano player of the year award for him after he won the category 12 times in a row, from 1992 to 2003. He received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2000.

Third-Grade Education

Joe Willie Perkins was born in Honey Island, near the Delta town of Belzoni, Mississippi, on July 7, 1913. His father, Sandy Perkins, was a Baptist preacher; his mother, Hattie, was a native American. Both were tenant farmers. Elmore James, a blues singer-guitarist who influenced countless musicians, was his cousin.

By the time he was 9, his parents split. He and Hattie, along with his sister, lived with his grandmother. His mother introduced him to cigarettes and whiskey.

Perkins quit school after third grade to work on a cotton plantation and never learned to read. His stepfather taught him the guitar, his first instrument, when Perkins was 10. He later learned how to tune and repair pianos as well as play them.

As a teenager, he left home after a beating from his grandmother. He moved north to Tutwiler, Mississippi, where he performed with a church choir, and then to Clarksdale, where he played at house parties and juke joints. He also worked at local plantations and, at one point, helped run a moonshine still.

Dropping the Guitar

Perkins met slide guitarist Robert Nighthawk in the 1930s and guitarist Earl Hooker, John Lee Hooker’s cousin, in the early 1940s. He performed with both musicians and later toured with Ike Turner, who learned the piano from him, and B.B. King.

In 1943, he began playing on Nighthawk’s radio show for station KFFA, based in Helena, Arkansas. Sonny Boy Williamson, the harmonica player born Rice Miller, had a rival KFFA program called King Biscuit Time. Perkins joined Williamson’s band, the King Biscuit Entertainers, and stayed for most of the 1940s.

A stabbing in a Helena hotel room severed the tendons in his left arm and forced him to give up the guitar. His attacker was a chorus girl whose ex-husband had locked her in the bathroom as a practical joke. Perkins was the first man she saw after escaping.

The injury also led him to create what Jon Pareles, a New York Times music critic, once described as “his own mixture of boogie-woogie and blues, by turns elegant and sly and blunt.”

Auto Mechanic

Perkins moved to Cairo, Illinois, in 1949 and made a living as an auto mechanic. He performed on Nighthawk’s “Jackson Town Gal,” a 1950 single from a forerunner of Chess Records. At an Earl Hooker show, he went half-deaf when his eardrum ruptured.

“Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie,” written and originally performed by Clarence “Pinetop” Smith, was recorded in 1953 when he backed Hooker at a Memphis session for Sun. Perkins had performed the song live for years, and the nickname stuck.

Perkins moved to St. Louis in the late 1950s and then to Chicago in 1960. He spent most of the decade performing in the city’s blues clubs. In 1968, he appeared on Hooker’s “Two Bugs and a Roach” album.

Waters then picked him to replace Otis Spann, who had gone solo. “Hard Again,” the first of four Waters albums produced by Johnny Winter, introduced Perkins to a broader audience in 1977. He performed on all three follow-ups and in “The Last Waltz,” The Band’s 1978 concert film, directed by Martin Scorsese.

‘Blues Brothers’

In 1976, Perkins recorded “Boogie Woogie King,” a European solo album. Four of his songs were included two years later in an anthology series, “Living Chicago Blues.” In 1980, he appeared in the “Blues Brothers” movie as part of John Lee Hooker’s band.

Waters’s band left him in 1980 after a dispute over money. Perkins joined with three fellow sidemen to form the Legendary Blues Band and appeared on the group’s first two albums. In 1987, he made a cameo appearance in the movie “Angel Heart.” His U.S. debut album, “After Hours,” was released the following year.

At 83, he stopped drinking after a bout of alcoholism that resulted in multiple drunken-driving convictions and a 1994 stint under house arrest. Sara Lewis, his partner for 30 years, died in 1995 -- the same year he went through rehab.

Perkins moved to La Porte, Indiana, after completing his treatment. He relocated to Austin in 2004 with the help of Clifford Antone, owner of Antone’s nightclub, and received the key to the city on his 92nd birthday.

Before living with Lewis, Perkins was married to a woman named Adelaine. He had four children, including twins by another woman he once met while on tour.