Friday, March 25, 2011

TOP STORY > >Bluesmen from Delta passing on

Leader staff executive editor

Joe Willie (Pinetop) Perkins, who was the oldest living bluesman and Grammy winner until he passed away Monday at 97, sat recently in a wheelchair in a little alcove just offstage at Stickys Chicken Shack in the Rivermarket District in Little Rock.

It was late Saturday night at the end of February. He wore a dark suit and a hat and had a blanket on his lap to keep him from catching pneumonia. His young valet had pushed the wheelchair in through the front door. It was a bit chilly outside, but not too bad for February.

Although he looked fragile, Pinetop smoked several cigarettes, lighting up as if he were a youngster. He and his valet kept puffing away as Willie (Big Eyes) Smith and the band warmed up onstage.

They won a Grammy last month for “Joined at the Hip” as the best traditional blues CD of 2010, making Pinetop the oldest Grammy winner ever.

They had both played with Muddy Waters in the 1970s — Pinetop on piano and Smith on harmonica — and now they were touring the country and winning over young fans.

Smith was born in Helena, where Pinetop, a native of Belzoni, Miss., played with the King Biscuit Boys on KFFA in the 1950s. Later, they both wound up in Chicago, where they hooked up with Muddy and toured the world together.

Even though the Little Rock show started late — it was around 11 when Pinetop got up from the wheelchair and walked onstage with the help of his valet — the crowd loved him as he played blues standards for almost an hour.

It was to be one of his last shows — a week later, he appeared at Antone’s in Austin, Texas, where he’d been living for several years — and then two weeks later, Pinetop died in his sleep, apprently from a heart attack.

You can’t tell an old man to stop smoking or drinking. Several years ago, I helped Pinetop get onstage at a blues festival in Clarksdale, Miss., when he was in his early 90s. He had just finished a Big Mac and had washed it down with bourbon.

Pinetop had worked hard — he had picked cotton for much of his life — and he lived it up. You could say that about all the great old bluesmen: Life was never easy, but when the sun went down, it was time for fun.

Pinetop made a fine record a few years ago called “Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen — Live in Dallas,” recorded in 2004 with Honeyboy Edwards, Robert Lockwood and Henry Townsend.

The youngest in the group were Lockwood and Edwards. They were both born in 1915, a couple of years after Pinetop: Lockwood near Marvell in Phillips County, and Edwards near Shaw, Miss., not far from Pinetop’s home.

Lockwood died in 2006, but Honeyboy is still alive and playing concerts at the age of 95.

Townsend, the oldest, was born in 1909 in Shelby, Miss. — about 50 miles as the crow flies from the others — making him 95 when the recording was made. He was nearly 97 when he died two years later.

Pinetop will be buried April 2 in Clarksdale. He had worked at the nearby Hopson Plantation around the time the mechanical cotton picker was first introduced in the 1940s.

He’d often go back there and play the piano in the old commissary, which is now a bar.

More sad news about another Delta musician passing away: Big Jack Johnson, a great Clarksdale bluesman who died a week be-fore Pinetop, was buried there last Saturday. He’d been in poor health for several months and died at a Memphis hospital at the age of 70.

We saw Big Jack several times in Clarksdale and spent a New Year’s Eve with him in front of a juke joint waiting for his band to show up. They never did, and it was a cold night, but Big Jack passed around his bottle of corn whiskey to keep everyone warm.

He made several fine re-cords. A couple of them were recorded not far from where we were standing: “Rocking the Juke Joint Down” at the Red Top Lounge and “Oil Man Got Drunk” at Stackhouse Studios, both excellent and rare but worth tracking down.

They called him the Oil Man because for a long time, he made his living driving an oil truck around the Delta. But he never got drunk and could play his guitar and sing for hours like a bluesman from an older generation.

He knew many of the old-timers and learned from them. Starting in the 1960s, he was part of the Jelly Roll Kings with harmonica player and keyboardist Frank Frost, who was born near Auvergne in Jackson County, and drummer Sam Carr, who was born near Marvell and was the son of Robert Nighthawk, who was from Helena.

Frost and Nighthawk are buried in Helena, and Carr is buried across the river in Clarksdale. Their “Big Boss Man” CD from Sun Records is terrific and was a favorite of Sam Phillips, the label’s owner.

Phillips is also gone, but enough of the obituaries. Their music is timeless.