pinetop perkins, 1913-2011

pinetop perkins. ap photo by rogelio v. solis.

pinetop perkins. ap photo by rogelio v. solis.

Age always seem to be the great leveler in most musical fields – except, that is, for the blues. There, age is both a virtue and a necessity. Even in its most stereotypical portrayals, the blues comes alive in the hands of the elders.

A young man playing the blues? Sure, it can be done. Just look at the work of Stevie Ray Vaughan. But blues music becomes almost incandescent when brought to life by a stylist that has lived long (and often hard) enough to turn the life lessons within its grooves into sage-style testimonies.

That may explain why many bluesmen don’t retire – even the few that can afford to. They simply perform until they draw their last breath. Witness the aged grace of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and R.L. Burnside or the still-alive-and-well music of B.B. King and John Hammond.

But if there was a true Energizer Bunny among bluesmen, it would have been Pinetop Perkins, who passed away Monday at the age of 97. The pianist was a working musician almost until the very end and won his most recent Grammy in February, making him the oldest recipient of the award. Not a bad way to make an exit.

Perkins was a bluesman by definition. Among his many career accomplishments were the late ‘70s Johnny Winter-produced albums by Waters, where the pianist was part of a sublime band that helped the blues giant regain national notoriety and begin a career victory lap equaled only by the final recordings Johnny Cash made with Rick Rubin.

But Perkins regularly outdistanced the blues. His music reveled in boogie-woogie traditions, most of which he forged into a joyous sound all his own. He generously shared that music, too.

A favorite concert snapshot came when Perkins played as part of a 1994 festival at the Kentucky Horse Park. There, performing with numerous Waters alumni that included longtime pal Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Perkins had two different audiences cheering him on. The first was the wildly receptive Horse Park crowd in front of him. The second was made up of members of the co-billed Little Feat, especially pianist Bill Payne, who stood behind him like eager children listening to a grandparent. Enthralled by the mutual adoration, Perkins beamed with a smile that could have lit up Broadway.

“I think people like the stuff I’m doing,” Perkins told me prior to a 2008 performance with Smith at Somerset’s Master Musicians Festival. “It’s all I know how to do.”

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