Muddy Waters was looking for a new piano player when chain-smoking journeyman Pinetop Perkins showed off his aggressive keyboarding during a jam session.
“He liked what he heard. The rest is history,” said Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, who was a drummer in Waters’ band back in 1969.
By then, Perkins, an old school bluesman with the gravelly voice, for years had played the rickety bars among the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta, and toured far beyond them with rock pioneer Ike Turner in the 1950s. He performed with the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson and slide guitarist Robert Nighthawk.
When he and Waters hooked up, Pinetop was in his 50s and never had recorded an album of his own but “had more energy than us younger folks did,” Smith said.
That verve kept him jamming in the clubs and collecting Grammy Awards until shortly before his death from cardiac arrest Monday at his Austin, Texas, home. He was 97.
Perkins’ skills came not from any sort of formal training but from an innate ability and love for a musical form that arose from the South’s plantation system.
“I didn’t get no schooling. I come up the hard way in the world,” Perkins told The Associated Press in a 2009 interview.
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Bob Corritore, a harmonica player who performed occasionally with Perkins and produced some of his work, said, “Pinetop could find the cracks and fill them in and be the glue and mortar of the whole band.”
Fellow great bluesman B.B. King was saddened by the loss of his friend.
“He was one of the last great Mississippi Bluesmen. He had such a distinctive voice, and he sure could play the piano. He will be missed not only by me, but by lovers of music all over the world,” King said in an emailed statement.
Perkins won a Grammy in February for best traditional blues album for “Joined at the Hip: Pinetop Perkins & Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith.” That win made Perkins the oldest Grammy winner, edging out late comedian George Burns, who was 95 when he won in the spoken category for “Gracie: A Love Story” in 1990.
Perkins also won a 2007 Grammy for best traditional blues album for his collaboration on the “Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas.” He received a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2005.
Neil Portnow, president of The Recording Academy that awards the Grammys, called Perkins “a legendary bluesman and master piano player.”
“A force to be reckoned with, his robust playing style and distinctive voice were unmistakable,” Portnow said. “Whether performing solo or jamming with other notable talent, his charisma and energy stood out in every song. His legacy has informed and inspired so many generations, and will continue to do so for many more to come.”
Even at his advanced age, Perkins was a fixture at Austin clubs, playing regular gigs up to last month. He had more than 20 performances booked this year, said Perkins’ agent Hugh Southard. And after they won the Grammy this year, Smith and Perkins discussed recording another CD.
“I thank the Lord for me being here all the time. I play any piano with a good tune,” Perkins said in 2009.
Perkins, whose real first name was Willie, was born in 1913 in Belzoni, Miss. He gave himself the nickname “Pinetop” because he liked the music of an earlier performer named Pinetop Smith, Corritore said.
And piano wasn’t his first choice of instrument. He started out on the guitar.
“But due to a misunderstanding with a woman he was stabbed in the arm and had tendon damage so he switched to piano,” said Corritore said.
Perkins accompanied Williamson on the popular King Biscuit Time radio show broadcast on KFFA in Helena, Ark., in the 1940s, but was known mostly as a sideman until he started recording his own style decades later.
“Boogie Woogie King” was Perkins’ first solo album in 1976. Beginning in 1992 with “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie,” he released a string of 15 albums in as many years.
“There were times I got to spend full weeks with him working on projects. Through all of it, he was just strong and steady,” Corritore said.
Perkins lived his life in the tradition of many bluesmen, rambling from place to place, watching most of his contemporaries pass on. He moved to Austin in 2004 to live with an associate since he had no family.
His manager, Patricia Morgan, said funeral arrangements were pending in Austin and a graveside service would be held near Clarksdale, Miss., where he wanted to be buried.
“We knew he lived a good life. What can you say about the man? He left here in his sleep. That’s the way I want to go,” said Smith.