Pinetop Perkins

Pinetop Perkins
Born In The Honey: The Pinetop Perkins Story

Sagebrush Productions (VizzTone Label Group) SB101

By Karen Nugent
May 2007

He had his arm nearly cut off by a crazed knife-welding woman who had been locked in a hotel bathroom.

He lost half his hearing when an amplifier exploded beside him - emitting a sonic boom.

He knowingly let a bandmate take a cross-dressing man back to his room, and got a good laugh out of it in the morning.

All that followed his early years picking cotton on a Mississippi sharecropper’s farm after he left home at 16 following a severe beating at the hands of his grandmother. Then he played Gospel music in a chuch, before he got caught with the minister’s daughter. That was followed by a hasty exit from town to avoid an arrest for moonshine running.

And I didn’t even get to the guitar, drums, and, of course, stellar piano playing of the incomparable Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins. (He took the nickname “Pinetop” from an earlier piano man, Clarence “Pinetop” Smith, possibly as an alias when the cops were after him for the booze running operation.)

Actually, Pinetop Perkins’ 93 years are more apropos for a full-length blockbuster film, probably with a prequel and at least one sequel. But this 60-minute portrait of one of the most talented – not to mention colorful – bluesmen ever gives enough flavor of the man to require watching over and over.

Besides giving us the story of Perkins’ highly entertaining life, along with swatches of his music, the DVD takes an interesting historical look at the blues migration from the Mississippi delta to the industrialized north during the first half of the 1900s.

The title refers to the Honey Island Plantation in Belzoni, Miss., where Perkins was born in 1913. Honey could also describe the man’s gorgeous voice.

The film follows him through the delta, to KFFA Radio in Helena, Ark., and onto Memphis, St. Louis, Cairo (Illinois, not Egypt), and finally, to great stardom in Chicago. Amazingly, Perkins BEGAN his solo career at the age of 83, after - starting in his mid-20s - playing with everyone from Earl Hooker, Robert Nighthawk, Sonny Boy Williamson, and finally, Muddy Waters. Along the way, he taught Ike Turner to play piano.

The video has close-up interviews with Perkins, a lot of which were filmed at the Hopson Plantation in Clarksdale, Miss., where he worked and played music in the 1940s. Earlier, Perkins had been exposed at plantations and juke joints to blues greats from the 20s such as Charley Patton, who taught him guitar, his first instrument.

After the knifing incident, which severed Perkins’ left bicep tendon, he could no longer play guitar, and lost a lot of speed on his piano bass hand.

The DVD features interviews and stories from his many friends and fellow musicians, including Ike Turner, Hubert Sumlin, Koko Taylor, Taj Mahal, Paul Oscher, Kim Wilson, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Ann Rabson, Bubba Sullivan (owner of the Blues Corner in Helena), Lonnie Brooks, Dr. John, Eddy Clearwater, Bernard Allison, Marcia Ball, and Bobby Rush. It’s Rush who lets the cat out of the bag on the cross-dressing story with his hilarious account of the incident. In the interview, he reveals that he promised Pinetop that he would not tell that story, but couldn’t stop himself. It’s a highlight of the film. (And how did Pinetop know the “she” was a he? “Feet like violin cases,” Rush chortles.)

Dispersed throughout the film are snippets of live performance starring Perkins with other musicians, including Bob Margolin, Calvin “Fuzz” Jones, and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, all of whom were in Muddy Water’s band with Perkins.

Pianist Ann Rabson gives a few insights into Perkins late-night jam sessions, where he usually lasts until closing, even after much younger musicians have gone to bed. She also talks about his affinity for junk food, especially from McDonald’s. There’s footage of Perkins in the back seat of a car going through a McDonald’s drive up, where he orders four apple pies, and, smiling, waves the bag out the window to the film crew.

Apparently, Mr. Perkins, who has a face like a grisly tomcat, has a Keith Richards-like constitution. He’s been smoking since the early 1920s, and rarely is seen without a butt in his hand. He had to quit drinking at 82, after a few drunk-driving arrests.

A head-shaking Willie “Big Eyes” Smith wonders in the film how Perkins is deemed in good health after regular checkups. “His lungs are clear. And he’s been smoking for 75 years,” he remarks.

While other musicians spoke of Perkins’ gutbucket, barrelhouse style blues (he is considered the godfather of boogie-woogie piano, and his style was later picked up by jazz, rock-and-roll, and swing artists), Ms. Rabson pointedly notes that he has his own style, which is, “a mile wide and a mile deep.”

Along with the interviews and music, there are great historic still shots of Mississippi cotton picking, black soldiers in World War II, the King Biscuit radio show, and scenes of Helena, Clarksdale, Memphis, and Illinois.

The accompanying CD has 10 of Perkins’ best-loved songs (he released 15 albums since 1992) including “Chicken Shack,” “Ida B,” “Kansas City,” and “How Long Blues.”

Early on in the film, Perkins makes a deep, telling remark: “I had a rough time, but I made it.”

You can say that again.

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