These days, every town under the sun can claim a blues guitar player or two. It's almost a clich. But blues piano players? They are as rare as two-dollar bills; they're the stuff of legends.
Blues legend is exactly the title that suits Chicago blues piano player Joe Willie "Pinetop" Perkins, who will be on a boogie-woogie tear Saturday night, May 15, at Classics. Pinetop, who takes his nickname from the pinetop of his favorite instrument -- the piano -- is the real deal. He is a living link between the down-home Delta blues root and its urban Chicago offshoot.
"Pinetop was born in 1913 in Belzoni, Mississippi, and has been performing steadily since the 1930s," said Perkins' agent, Hugh Southard. "He originally started on guitar, but when a pissed-off chorus girl stabbed him in the arm, he was forced to switch permanently to the piano." That's how the breaks often come in the blues.
Perkins' credits read like a who's who of blues greats. "He's worked with everyone," said Southard. "Slidemaster Robert Nighthawk, harp wizard Sonny Boy Williamson II, Earl Hooker, Little Milton Campbell and Albert King. He was also Ike Turner's piano teacher when Ike was about 10 years old. When Ike puts together a band, he still sends Pinetop a band suit and does whatever he can to help out Pinetop."
Perkins also appeared on the seminal King Biscuit Time radio program in the '40s. He now plays every year at the three-day-long King Biscuit Blues Festival. In recognition of his place in blues history, the Sunday show is now named the Pinetop Homecoming.
But it was the decade he spent with the Muddy Waters Band, replacing another legend, Otis Spann, in 1969, where Pinetop emerged as the foremost practitioner of the Chicago blues boogie-woogie piano, what some have termed the barrelhouse tradition.
"He's as straight-up Chicago blues as there can possibly be," said Southard. "Chicago piano blues." Indeed, Perkins couples powerful left-hand bass lines interwoven with right-hand percussive fills. When you hear him play, you hear the dark rolling Mississippi alongside the uplift of a roadhouse horn section; you hear the timeless tradition that is the blues.
In the 1980s, Perkins and the rest of Muddy Waters' backups quit over a contract dispute and went on to perform as the Legendary Blues Band. Since then, as both a headliner and solo performer in his own right, Perkins has put out so many recordings Southard can't keep them straight. To top it off, he's won the Handy award for keyboardist 18 years in a row.
"This year, they took him out of the running so someone else will have a chance to win," laughed Southard.
Now, nearly 91, Perkins is recovering from an accident in which his car was broadsided by a train. How bluesy is that? The fact that he is still performing, in our humble little town nonetheless, ably backed up by Denver's own traditional bluesmen, The Delta Sonics, should make us feel like we're all sitting on top of the blues.
-- Joe Sciallo
Pinetop Perkins with The Delta Sonics and The Channel Cats
Classics, 5943 Delmonico Drive
Saturday, May 15 at 8 p.m.
$17 advance, $20 day of concert (available at Classics)