Blues musician 'Pinetop' Perkins dies at 97

Blues musician Joe Willie "Pinetop" Perkins, who this year became the oldest person ever to win a Grammy Award, died at his Austin home yesterday at age 97.

"He went to take a nap and didn't wake up," said his manager, Patricia Morgan.

Perkins won a Grammy, the music world's top award, for best traditional blues album for "Joined at the Hip: Pinetop Perkins & Willie 'Big Eyes' Smith." He also won a 2007 Grammy and a 2005 lifetime achievement Grammy.

Perkins was born in 1913 on a cotton plantation near Belzoni, Mississippi, and became a sideman to blues legends such as Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson.

Never learning to read - a shortcoming he once said cost him throughout his long career - Perkins picked cotton and was introduced to whiskey as a boy by his mother. He ran away from home after his grandmother smashed a bottle over his head for not chopping firewood.

The lanky Perkins began playing guitar at house parties and ramshackle "juke joints" in the South, and taught himself to play piano.

He was forced to give up the guitar and stick to piano after a woman sliced open his arm in a Helena, Arkansas, nightspot. The doctor who sewed up the gash left the tendons in his left arm too short for him to finger chords on the guitar.

"I can't play piano like I used to either," Perkins told the Chicago Tribune in a 2004 interview. "I used to have bass rolling like thunder. I can't do that no more."

Perkins adopted his nickname from his mentor Clarence “Pine Top” Smith, whose “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie” (1928) fuelled the boogie-woogie craze.

He appeared on Williamson's King Biscuit Time radio program in the 1950s and recorded and toured with Earl Hooker, Big Joe Williams and Robert Nighthawk.

While with Williamson, Perkins inspired a young Ike Turner whom he taught to play boogie-woogie - a style and tempo that evolved in Turner's hands into the song "Rocket 88," which some music historians regard as the first rock 'n' roll song.

In 1969, Waters picked Perkins to replace Otis Spann on piano in his electrified blues band.

After a dozen years, Perkins and some other bandmates left Waters to form the Legendary Blues Band, and he also performed as a sideman on albums by Chicago blues guitarist Buddy Guy and singer Neil Diamond.

He went out on his own when he was in his 80s and in 1988 released an album of Chicago blues entitled "After Hours."

Perkins won blues music's version of the Grammy, the W.C. Handy Award, for keyboard playing for 11 straight years and the prize for traditional blues man in 2004. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2003.

He made appearances in blues clubs alone or in a trio, often sporting a homburg, one foot stomping to the beat - although never on Sundays.

"I ask the Lord, please forgive me for the stuff I done trying to make a nickel," he told the Tribune.

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