Blues piano master Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins was born on July 7, 1913, on the Honey Island Plantation, seven miles southeast of Belzoni. Perkins spent much of his career accompanying blues icons such as Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2 and Muddy Waters. After he began to tour and record as a featured singer and soloist in the 1980s, Perkins earned a devoted following among enthusiasts who hailed him as the venerated elder statesman of blues piano.
Perkins did not have an album under his own name in the United States until he was seventy-five years old (in 1988), but during the next two decades he recorded more than fifteen LPs and CDs as the reigning patriarch of blues piano. Perkins started out on guitar, but he also learned piano as a youngster, influenced by local pianists and by the records of Clarence “Pine Top” Smith and others. Smith’s “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie” of 1929 was so popular that many pianists, including Perkins, took up boogie woogie and sometimes even adopted the name “Pine Top,” or “Pinetop.”
Perkins spent much of his childhood moving around the Delta, living with his mother or other relatives, or with his friend, guitarist Boyd Gilmore, on a plantation with Gilmore’s grandparents. Perkins picked cotton, worked as handyman, mechanic, and truck driver, and began playing at juke joints, house parties, and cockfights. His first professional job in music was as a guitarist with blues legend Robert Nighthawk. In the 1940s Perkins played piano on radio broadcasts with Nighthawk and with Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2 (Rice Miller) on KFFA in Helena, Arkansas. When a woman stabbed him in Helena, the injury forced him to give up the guitar, although he was already becoming better known as a pianist. Perkins also drove a tractor on the Hopson plantation near Clarksdale. In Clarksdale he later mentored a young Ike Turner on piano and began working with another prodigy, guitarist Earl Hooker.
Perkins first recorded as pianist on a Nighthawk session in Chicago in 1950. In 1953 Perkins recorded two versions of “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” when he, Boyd Gilmore, and Earl Hooker did a session together for Sam Phillips’s Sun label in Memphis. Pinetop continued to play with Nighthawk, Hooker, and others at different times and also worked at a laundry and a garage. In 1969, when Otis Spann–another noted pianist with Belzoni roots–left the Muddy Waters band, Waters called on Perkins to take his place. International touring and recording with Muddy brought him widespread recognition, and he made his first album in 1976 for a French label. In 1980 Perkins and other band members left Muddy and formed the Legendary Blues Band. After recording two albums with the unit, Perkins embarked on his belated solo career.
In addition to Perkins and Spann, other blues artists who were born in on near Belzoni or who lived here include Denise LaSalle, Boyd Gilmore, Eddie Burns, Paul “Wine” Jones, Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2, and Elmore James.
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