Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins is a national treasure. Forget Mount Rushmore and to hell with the Grand Canyon – old rocks and dead men are no match for a timeless spring of eternal blues.
When Pinetop Perkins was born in 1913, William Howard Taft was President of the 48 United States- Arizona had been a state for just over a year! Taft was the 27th President; George W. Bush is the 43rd. Perkins has lived through 16 presidential administrations, World War I, World War II, Korea, Kennedy, Vietnam, the moon landing, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nixon. Pinetop Perkins has lived through more history than Forrest Gump. That timeline covers only some of what he's lived through, but none of what he's done.
He was born in Belzoni, Mississippi on the Honey Island plantation. Perkins has taken to saying he was “born in the honey,” a turn of phrase that now serves as the title of a 60-minute documentary on his incredible life.
He started playing music at an early age, learning both guitar and piano as a youngster before leaving home around age 16. Fellow blues legend Robert Nighthawk was from this same area of the Delta. He and Perkins formed a relationship that would see the two men working together throughout Nighthawk's life. Early on, music wasn't enough to support Perkins so he supplemented his earnings as a musician with both honest and more questionable occupations.
He moved to Clarksdale in 1940, not long after the moonshine operation he helped run got broken up. His fellow entrepreneurs were apprehended by the law. He escaped and decided it was time for a change of scenery. In Clarksdale, he found work at the same plantation as the legendary Charlie Patton. While there, he also met Earl Hooker. Hooker and Nighthawk would be Perkins' most regular musical partners for the next 30 years.
Nighthawk led Perkins west to Helena, Arkansas, when he landed a radio gig at legendary KFFA, which played a crucial role in spreading the blues sound throughout the South. KFFA was one of the first – if not the first – radio stations to hire, pay, and play African-American artists. Nighthawk's gig wasn't paid, but the exposure it would give he and Pinetop was almost as good as cash in hand. Pinetop was lured from his gig with Nighthawk to playing with fellow KFFA artist Sonny Boy Williamson, who not only had a radio gig, he was getting paid. Perkins now had the best of both worlds.
Perkins knocked around Memphis, St. Louis, and Cairo, Illinois throughout the '50s. While in Memphis, he taught Ike Turner to play piano. He also recorded on a session with Earl Hooker for Sun Records. While there, he recorded “Pinetop's Boogie Woogie,” which was originally recorded by Clarence “Pinetop” Smith. The song meant so much to Perkins that he donned the nickname himself, becoming even more famous than its originator.
He moved to Chicago in the '60s. While there, he played on Earl Hooker's Two Bugs and a Roach album. In 1969, he was asked to join Muddy Waters' band after Waters' longtime piano player Otis Spann finally left to go solo. Spann died in April the next year. Perkins and Spann probably did more to define and develop blues piano than any other players in the history of the genre.
For the next 11 years, Water played in Muddy's band and the two became good friends as well as musical partners. He and the other members of Waters' band – Bob Margolin, Calvin “Fuzz” Jones, and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith – began a career as the Legendary Blues Band after parting with Waters in a dispute over finances. Waters died in 1983. In 1988, at age 75, Pinetop recorded his first solo album, After Hours.
The '90s were a tough decade for Perkins, personally. He was placed under house arrest in 1994 after being stopped for multiple DUIs. There aren't many men still driving in their 80s. Perkins was not only driving, he was being busted for driving under the influence. That's probably not the path to longevity, but the fact that he lived through the experience is remarkable. The court ordered him into rehab, and in 1995 he gave up drinking at age 82. His tour in 1996 was his first time out on the road since giving up the bottle. The second half of the decade was better for Perkins as his next two albums were nominated for Grammys. In 2005, he received a Lifetime Achievement award from the Grammys.
Perkins may have given up drinking but according to some of the tour companions interviewed in this documentary, he hasn't exactly embraced healthful living. Willie “Big Eyes” Smith said Perkins' lungs are cleaner than his own despite the fact that he doesn't smoke and Perkins has been a smoker for the better part of 75 years.
Born in the Honey assembles a wonderful cast of blues legends to both pay tribute to Perkins as well as swap stories about time spent with him. Bobby Rush has a great story about Pinetop the prankster. Ike Turner, Bob Margolin, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Ann Rabson, Paul Oscher, Dr. John, Lonnie Brooks, Hubert Sumlin, Taj Majal, Kim Wilson, Marcia Ball, Koko Tayler, and Bernard Allison are all interviewed during the documentary as is Pinetop himself.
“One of the things that really amazes me about Pinetop's longevity is that I don't believe I've ever seen him eat anything but McDonald's,” said Ann Rabson.
Pinetop Perkins is a blues icon, and Born in the Honey does a fine job of telling his story. The production value of the DVD is solid, but not spectacular and the sound quality of some of the performance footage is occasionally suspect. These are minor nitpicks but they are noticeable. They are easily forgiven because of the cast of admirers who are interviewed as part of the documentary. Also included in the package is a 10-song CD, Pinetop Perkins on the 88s. The first nine tracks are taken from a live performance.
So many biographical documentaries seem to cover subjects who have passed away, subjects who won't continue adding chapters to their life stories.
Pinetop Perkins is still alive and well. This recognized Lifetime of Achievement will reach its 94th year in July. He is among the last living connections – living legend is a wholly appropriate title for the man – to one of America's greatest gifts to the artistic world, but he is no living museum. Pinetop Perkins continues to tour and perform, bringing pure Delta blues piano to new generations of fans in search of the honey.