Gone fishin'

Jan 5, 2000 at 12:00 am

Now 86, the one thing bluesman Mr. Pinetop Perkins loves to do almost as much as play the piano — maybe more — is to go fishing.

He's got a new place out in La Porte, Ind. — not too far from Gary — where he's surrounded by just enough country land and just few enough neighbors to make him feel good and relaxed during those comfortable stretches of time when he's not out on the road. It's also away from Chicago, his former home, where "they took away my driving privileges 'cause they caught me with whiskey in my car. I used to love that stuff. I don't drink no more, though."

Still, it was time to move out of Chicago to somewhere with a little more peace and quiet. A native of Belzoni, Miss., Perkins still has the more laid-back rhythms of the country thick in his blood. Fishing is an integral part of that rhythm.

"I caught some fish that was too small" in a body of water not far from his new home. "I threw 'em back. Told 'em to get big.

"I love to fish. I'm a fishing man."

Nobody who knows anything at all about the blues will ever accuse Pinetop Perkins of being a small fish that needs to be thrown back. As a matter of fact, compared to him, most other blues piano players on the scene today are the small fish. Pinetop is pretty much king of the hill, and it's good to be the king. It's a rank that he has paid more than enough dues to earn.

During the course of Perkins' nearly 70-year career in the blues, he has perhaps become best known as the man who played keys for Muddy Waters for 12 years. In 1969, Muddy tapped Pinetop to replace Otis Spann. Perkins remembers playing in Detroit at least twice before, once with Muddy Waters around 1969, then again in the early '80s with his own group, the Legendary Blues Band. This weekend Pinetop will be in the Motor City once again to headline the Detroit Blues Society's Anti-Freeze Blues Festival at the Magic Bag.

But long before Perkins gained fame with Muddy, he was working as a guitar player during the 1930s and '40s. It was during the '40s, when he was working with Rice "Sonny Boy Williamson" Miller, that he injured his arm in such a way that it forced him to switch from guitar to the keyboard. Perkins went on to play keyboards with Sonny Boy for five years on the "King Biscuit Time" radio program based in Helena, Ark. It was after one of these performances that a young Ike Turner convinced Pinetop to give him piano lessons.

Pinetop also did a lot of touring with guitarist Robert Nighthawk, backing him up on some of the early Chess Records recording sessions. He later did some brief work with B.B. King in Memphis, then hooked up with Earl Hooker during the early '50s to tour the South and, finally, to record a session on Sam Phillips' Sun Records in Memphis in 1953. The style that came to define Perkins was a unique brand of boogie-woogie where he used his right hand to play horn lines while running the bass lines with his left. It was Pinetop's sound that greatly influenced the development of what came to be known as swing, even though Perkins never actually played any swing music himself.

Since those early days, Perkins has never slowed down musically and has continued to bring the house down pretty much everywhere he plays. Not long ago, Perkins was in New York and he remembers, "We had a crowd, boy. Wherever we go, we get a crowd."

Perkins has contributed keyboard tracks to numerous other blues greats in recent years, including Big Daddy Kinsey, Koko Taylor, James Cotton and Johnny Winter. In 1998, he earned a Grammy nomination for "Best Traditional Blues Album" with his release, Born in the Delta.

When asked about the state of the blues today, Perkins responds, "It's holding up pretty good. It's 'cause the white boys are picking it up good."

As for younger blues players who he thinks are best carrying on the tradition, singer-guitarist-songwriter Bonnie Raitt is one of the first names he mentions.

"I just saw Bonnie about two or three months ago. She called me up on stage."

Big Bill Morganfield, the son of Muddy Waters, is another blues player he points to as having the right stuff.

Pinetop, himself, has had the stuff for decades and, to be honest, he's getting just a bit tired. Oh, he still likes to tickle the ivories all right. But if he could get paid to go fishing ...

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. E-mail [email protected]