Celebrating Pinetop Perkins
Monday, March 28, 2011
By Bob Margolin
Pinetop Perkins’ life gently departed on March 21, but he was so adored by his Blues family that one funeral was not enough. There will be a second visitation will be held in Clarksdale, Mississippi, on Friday, April 1, and he will be buried there on Saturday, April 2.
Last Monday, Pinetop’s life was celebrated in his last hometown, Austin, at his funeral and then at night at the historic Antone’s nightclub. As she managed Pinetop’s career and care in life, his manager Pat “Pat-Top” Morgan asked me and legendary Austin guitarist Derek O’Brien to guide the music at the funeral and at the club. Let me share that deep and special day with you, from my up-in-it point of view.
I had played in Raleigh and Atlanta the weekend before and couldn’t make it down for the viewing last Sunday, the day before the funeral. I arrived in Austin mid-day Monday, on the same flight as Pinetop’s dear friend, powerful piano player Daryl Davis and our booking agent Hugh Southard.
I met Derek and we went to the funeral home to bring in some small guitar amps. I should have realized this might happen, but when we went into the funeral room three hours before the service, there was nobody in there but Pinetop. He was just lying there in his open casket. His face didn’t look much like the man I knew for thirty-eight years, because the joy of living was gone from those familiar features. But his hands were the ones I knew and loved to watch, either playing piano or ready to do so. I put down the amp and guitar I was carrying and looked down at him and told him I loved him again. I think he looked down at me too and told me he loved me.
It was surreal to be running extension cords, plugging in amplifiers, and unpacking, tuning, and testing our guitars while Pinetop rested fifteen feet away. I’ve done that on hundreds, maybe thousands of gigs since 1973, with Pinetop there to check the piano. He always declared, “This piano is out of tune! Well, I’ll do the best I can…” hitting two C notes to show they didn’t match. Of course most of the pianos were indeed in tune, especially the electronic ones. But a musician with the sensitivity of Pinetop could perhaps hear things the rest of us never will, musically and spiritually, if not physically. Everyone, through the years, respected him enough not to tell him he was wrong.
The service went beautifully, there were a few hundred people there. The funeral director had done Austin Blues funerals before: Freddie King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Clifford Antone. Willie “Big Eyes” Smith spoke first. Willie had first seen Pinetop play in the 1940s, but they became family when Pinetop joined Muddy Waters’ band in 1969, replacing the legendary Otis Spann. When they left Muddy’s band in 1980, they started the Legendary Blues Band together with the recently departed Calvin “Fuzz” Jones and harp player Jerry Portnoy. Willie and Pinetop have certainly done thousands of gigs together, but just a month ago they were honored to win this year’s Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album for Joined at the Hip. Willie delivered a soulful appreciation for a man we all love, but Willie was closer to him and played with him more than anyone.
Then Willie joined us on harp for the first musical tribute. I sang the ancient Leroy Carr song “How Long?” which Pinetop performed every night he played (sometimes twice in the last few years, if he forgot he’d already done it). Blues piano virtuoso David Maxwell played piano. Derek O’Brien and I played guitar, Austin bassman Scott Nelson, who Pinetop loved to play with, carried the bottom, and Chis Layton, perhaps the best-known and most-imitated Blues drummer ever for his time with Stevie Ray Vaughan, used just a snare drum with brushes. Willie Smith and I shared the one microphone we had for singing and Willie’s harp.
Then I spoke what was mostly what I wrote for BluesWax and Blues Revue last week. It was my personal good night to Daddy Pinetop. Right after, the next song was “Chicken Shack,” always the song that announced Pinetop’s arrival on the bandstand. For the first time, Pinetop didn’t come out to play it with us. But the piano was fulfilled by Pinetop’s dear friend Daryl Davis, from Washington, D.C. Little Frank Krakowski, who plays in Willie’s band, replaced me on guitar, and Boston-to-Austin saxophone legend Kaz Kazanoff led the head and blew a soulful solo.
Pat-Top Morgan, Pinetop’s manager, spoke briefly, and I could feel both her love for Pinetop and the world’s love for him in her remarks. She read a poem for Pinetop that had been written by her granddaughter that was beautiful for it’s childlike sweetness, as is Pinetop.
The last song we played was just a deep, slow Blues, started off by Marcia Ball on the piano. I gave the microphone to James Cotton, who still plays with all the fire he’s famous for, and is one of the legends who defines the language of Blues harmonica. Cotton played from the first row of seats, about twenty feet away from the band, but the whole time he played he stared into my eyes and into my soul and I looked back at him and we shared our Blues, especially when I started a Muddy Waters slide solo and Cotton finished the familiar lines. This was not an entertainment performance, so the audience wasn’t applauding the music, but in the middle of this deep, slow Blues Cotton played one of his signature licks that builds in intensity then stops abruptly – and the mourners couldn’t help themselves. It was a release and a tribute to both Cotton and Pinetop.
Michael Freeman, who produced the Grammy-winning Joined At The Hip for Pinetop and Willie, read a beautiful and spiritual message from bassman Bob Stroger, who is in Europe and couldn’t be at the funeral. Michael added his own appreciation and tribute to Pinetop. They had worked together on many albums in the last few years. Barry Nowlin, the professional senior caregiver who took great day-to-day care of Pinetop for the last few years, contributed his deeply personal perspective on this ancient spirit who had stayed with us for ninety-seven years. Barry had quickly come to love and be loved by Pinetop, and was a friend to all of us. He told a story of flying with Pinetop and seeing some guys who looked like older musicians in the back of the plane. Eventually one of them said, “Hey, isn’t that Pinetop Perkins up there?” When told it was he sent his greetings and revealed, “We’re the Beach Boys!” Fun Fun Fun in the sky – and everywhere Pinetop went.
After the service, we drove over to the Celebration of Life at Antone’s. For those of you that don’t know, Antone’s is the legendary Home of the Blues that from 1975 on has been the center of the Austin Blues Scene. Club owner Clifford Antone had brought in the best and deepest legendary Blues bands to his club as well as nurturing the scene that gave us The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Kim Wilson, Lou Ann Barton, Angela Strehli, Derek O’Brien, and Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan. He had brought Pinetop to Austin, to help care for him and be closer to him in 2005. Pinetop outlived so many younger Blues people, we were all shocked when Clifford passed in 2006. Clifford’s sister, the great Blues photographer Susan Antone, makes sure that Clifford’s legacy is carried on at the club. She did a beautiful job once again for this sweet night last Monday.
When Kaz and I pulled up to Antone’s there was a line around the block and the club was already full. You’d think Pinetop himself was playing there that night. But Pinetop was so loved and respected in his new and last hometown that the thousand or so that came out on a Monday night is not surprising.
While many of the musicians who were at the funeral went out for a long dinner together, Derek O’Brien and I started off with a set of Chicago and Texas Blues with the rhythm section from the funeral, Kaz on the sax, and Daryl Davis on the piano. Daryl rocked it pretty hard, but he started off with a song I haven’t heard in a long time, “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie.” For the last twelve years or so, Pinetop himself had not been playing it because as his age became amazingly and blessedly advanced, he could not play the dexterous left-hand bass lines to his own satisfaction. Pinetop had retired his signature song, but Daryl brought it back for us. What a thrill for me to play that song again.
Texas Blues prodigies, The Peterson Brothers performed three songs and then invited me and David Maxwell to jam with them. I had started to explain who Maxwell is, but they already knew he had played with Freddie King. We played “Hideaway” together, which is how guitar players in Texas shake hands.
James Cotton came up and played four songs, accompanied by the core band but with Austin’s Sarah Brown on bass. Cotton’s presence and harp playing inspires thrills, as it always did. Marcia Ball performed four songs with her fine guitar player, Mighty Mike Schermer and the band. They sounded wonderful, as always. Willie “Big Eyes” Smith led the young Peterson Brothers on harp, and then brought up his guitar player Little Frank Krakowski and me. In between band changes, David Maxwell sat down at the piano and played soulful Blues with amazing virtuosity, including a sweet Gospel song he’d written for Pinetop.
Diunna Greenleaf and guitar player Jonn Del Toro Richardson, performed with a fine drummer named Nico and with me playing Scott Nelson’s bass. Scott wears his bass extra low, and everyone got a good laugh at me playing the bass with it hanging down at knee level. Diunna sang a song I wrote for Muddy, “Lonely Man Blues,” and made it into a tribute to Pinetop. She also sang a capella the beautiful “In The Presence of the Lord,” mostly without a microphone, and the entire club hushed to hear every heavenly note. Diunna is one of the most wonderful singers I’ve ever heard, dead or alive, famous or unknown, live or recorded. Her voice and her own presence is a gift to the world. I love her.
By the time Diunna was finished, I had been up and active for twenty hours straight and I knew I couldn’t play anymore, I could barely think coherently. As I left the club to stay at my good friend Kaz’ house before flying home to North Carolina on Tuesday morning, I heard the wonderful Texas guitarist/singer Eve Monsees throwing down “Got Love If You Want It” with early T-Birds drummer Mike Buck and Scott Nelson back on his low-slung bass.
I truly regret that I could not bring up to the bandstand everyone who wanted to play on Monday night. When someone like Willie Smith or James Cotton or Marcia Ball wants to play longer than just an appearance, it’s not possible for me to ask them to play less than they want to. Pinetop’s close friends Bob Corritore, Rich Del Grosso, and Barrelhouse Chuck were in the house and I want to publicly apologize to them and to the audience for not somehow finding time to have them play some Blues for Pinetop that night.
I also want to publicly recognize and thank Pinetop’s friends who loved him so much and helped make his last years sweet: his manager Pat-Top Morgan, good friend Onnie Heaney, BMA Tours booking agent Hugh Southard who made sure Pinetop was doing the big gigs he deserved, Bernard Parks from the Pinetop Perkins Foundation, Susan Antone for keeping the Blues active, not just history, in Austin. A special thanks to Pinetop’s caregiver Barry Nowlin – certainly crucial to keeping Pinetop not only alive but thriving at the end of his life. Willie “Big Eyes” Smith’s youngest son Javik Smith was taking care of Pinetop for the last few weeks and found him taking his last nap, his hands laced peacefully behind his head. Death is hard for us, it was long-delayed and sweet for Pinetop. So we celebrated his life.
Bob Margolin is a contributing editor at BluesWax. He also plays guitar. Bob would appreciate your thoughts about his writing and his friend Pinetop. Please leave them below.
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