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The Road Goes On Forever: Pinetop Perkins Turns 97

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With peace and love and all due respect to early childhood hero Ringo Starr, today’s Verse Chorus Verse playlist is dedicated to honoring a legend, Grammy-award winner, Grammy Lifetime Achievement winner, and National Treasure.  

Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins was born July 7, 1913.  The president at the time was William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States.  Fast forwarding and doing the math, today marks Pinetop Perkins’ 97th birthday.

He has lived through the administration of 17 presidents from Taft to Obama.  He has lived through two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, and two wars in Iraq.  He has witnessed the Jim Crow segregated South and the Civil Rights movement led by, among others, Dr. Martin Luther King.  He saw man go to the moon.  He still smokes cigarettes and eats at McDonalds.  Through an impossible to imagine amount of change across nearly a century of living, he has remained a fixture in the music world and has played with everybody.  Early on it was Earl Hooker and Sam Phillips who helped him get his start.  He later joined the band of Muddy Waters, touring the world and recording some great sides with the blues icon during his great final years.  Perkins has outlived many of his contemporaries and would-be successors and continues to tour and record.

No matter how long I live or what happens to me, one of the great highlights of my life will be that I saw Pinetop Perkins perform in person in Memphis earlier this year.  I stood mere feet from him the next night at the Blues Music Awards after seeing him present the award named in his honor to Eden Brent.  Here are a couple songs you should all download and enjoy in honor of a true American National Treasure.

Happy Birthday, Pinetop.

1) “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie:”  He didn’t write it but he learned it, recorded it, and took his nickname from it.  With all due respect to the song’s composer, Pinetop Smith, this song is now and will forever be associated with Joe Willie Perkins.  Perkins first cut this song for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records label.  

2) “Chicken Shack:”  Considering that we’re talking about a 97-year old man who continues to tour, I wonder how many thousands of times Pinetop Perkins has played “Chicken Shack” in his career.  As I mentioned earlier, it is one of the great and profound thrills and honors of my life that I saw Perkins in person.  In fact, you can check out the same performance I witnessed:

3) “Kansas City:”  I’m sure Perkins knew this song before he did the impossible, replacing the irreplaceable Otis Spann in Muddy Waters’ band.  He played this song with Muddy countless times and this one continues to be part of his live repertoire.  He played it on the Grammy-winning blues album Live in Dallas with The Last Of The Great Delta Bluesmen (which included Robert Lockwood Jr., Henry James Townsend, (both since deceased) and Honeyboy Edwards) but I’m partial to the version he did with Waters on Muddy’s latter-day live album.

4) “Take My Hand, Precious Lord:”  This hymn was written by Rev. Thomas Dorsey and adapted by Perkins for the album he and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith released last month, Joined At The Hip. Listening to this reminds me of something I wrote about listening to Johnny Cash's American V, released shortly after his death, “Hearing what is left of that voice and knowing what it was communicates more powerfully than the words of any poet or lyricist.  He could have easily stopped recording when his health and voice began to fail him and no one would have blamed him.  Instead, he left us one more gift.  The distance from life to death is more tangible.”  Listening to the 96-year old Perkins singing about being tired, weak, and worn and reaching for the hand of his savior should reduce everyone who hears it to tears. It had that effect on everyone present when the song was recorded, according to the wonderful liner notes by noted historian Bill Dahl.


*Photo by Amy Brat, (2010).

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About Josh Hathaway

  • ygraine

    He is one in a million. Still rocking it. Thanks for the tribute to a great musician who still has a twinkle in his eye for the ladies!

  • Mark Saleski

    nice! man, i wish i could figure out what Pinetop song Mai Cramer used open her show with on wgbh in boston. she had such a great show and her love for Pinetop was right out front.

    97, that’s just crazy!

  • Bob Evans

    I saw him play in downtown Indianapolis close to 20 years ago. Yank Rachell and Dave Meyers were there that night, too. He was nearly 80 then and put on a great show.