He was the nation’s oldest bluesman. Still playing. News of Pinetop Perkins passing on at age 97 drifted into Chicago last night with a cold, grey spring rain. And if you listened real hard to the clouds you could hear that piano. That boogie-woogie beat. They call it barrelhouse piano.
The facts of the man’s life are important. His story is the stuff of movies. But the music. That driving piano. As if the notes were telling you the story of the earth itself. That piano was the real story.
And what came between those notes?
The pauses that gave you room to hang up the tattered worn coat of all your sorrows. Hang it on the wall. Let it sit there for a minute while your whole body starts to jump just a little, to a rhythm of joy that carries the blues. Like some kind of song keeps singing you hope.
You know it’s gonna be. Be alright. You know its gonna be. Be alright.’
Something somewhere in you, maybe its your heart, starts pounding in a new and crazy rhythm. And the music that kept this man Pinetop going so long is gonna keep you going just a little bit longer too.
Pinetop really hit his stride when he was in his eighties. 15 solo recordings in 15 years.
He had a lot left to say.
He started as a guitar player. But that all ended one night in the 1940’s in a little town in Arkansas. Pinetop had done his show. He was drinking in a local bar. And, as the story goes, there was this other couple in the bar. She was a dancing girl. She goes into the ladies room. Her husband rolls a giant barrel in front of the door. Trapping her inside. When she finally gets out, crazed from being locked inside, she whips out a big knife and jams it straight into the first thing she sees. Pinetop’s arm. The knife left him unable to play the guitar. So he started playing piano. And within a year, he was back in business. This time as a piano player.
Pinetop lived on the South Side of Chicago with his wife Sarah for 40 years. Backed up the great Muddy Waters. Played with just about every major blues player. Appeared in a cameo in the 1980 Blues Brothers movie, arguing with John Lee Hooker. Cheated death again in 2004 when a car he was driving was hit by a train and Pinetop walked away.
One of the video’s below tells his story in more detail. The man was a giant.
But the other video? The quick one. That one is just him and the music. Don’t miss that. Take a listen. Because when you do, you’ll be able to hear it too.
You’ll be able to hear them playing the blues in the swirling grey rainy heavens over Chicago. Listen for the piano. Perhaps harmonizing to lyrics in a book written centuries ago, by an author we know only by the name ‘Matthew.’
Lyrics that could read; “The gate is narrow; the road is hard that leads to life. Few find it.” And when you hear that piano come in, you’ll know Pinetop found that road.
Then the chorus will come round again. Clear enough for the whole wide world to hear and join in the song.
Welcoming Pinetop Perkins home.