While I was born in Seattle, Washington, and have lived here most of my life, I grew up in the Yakima, WA of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. Living in that small, Eastern Washington town, I enjoyed a close relationship with my parents. On my summer vacations, I spent many happy hours simply hanging around the house with my mom. I liked helping with the housework. I loved listening to her stories of growing up in the American South. And, we enjoyed listening to the radio together. We often listened to my dad’s own radio show on KLOQ AM. But when Dad wasn’t on the air, we’d turn the dial to KIT or one of Yakima’s other stations, searching for our favorite music.
Mainly we listened to the hits of the day – lots of Eddy Arnold, Jo Stafford; and definitely some Tennessee Ernie Ford. Since Mom was originally a Chattanooga, TN girl, she loved Tennessee Ernie. Mom knew her music — all kinds. She played and sang in ukulele bands in the late 30’s (they were very popular down South in that era). Her brother Claude, who could sing any Jimmie Rogers song, turned her on to the blues. (Jimmie Rogers, while called the Father of Country Music, was in many ways, a blues man. He recorded with African-American musicians when that sort of thing was rare.) — And yes, Mom had married her very own disc jockey, Al Bowles, Jr. — Better known to me as Dad.
One of the stations Mom and I listened to ran a contest similar to “Name That Tune”. The DJ would spin a record and ask listeners to call in and win a prize by identifying the song he was playing. I don’t recall what the prize was, but it was something pretty special. I sure do remember trying to win. Because for a few weeks, I definitely knew the answer. Day after day, the DJ played a great blues number entitled “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie”, which I’ve learned was recorded in Memphis, TN at Sam Phillips’ studio. — The studio where Elvis Presley cut his early, Earth-shaking sides. Mr. Phillips was a genius at recognizing talent. And Pinetop Perkins, the pianist featured on the record, certainly had talent.
So: having a mother who knew so much about music, I knew the name of the song. Mom was very sweet. She could have called in herself. But she always had me call in. She wanted me to experience the excitement of winning. But, I didn’t win.
I called and called. This was before speed dialing or cell phones were thought of. Our black Bell Systems rotary-dial phone just never made that magical connection. We were frustrated. Because the contest went on and on, and no one who managed to get through knew the answer. Here we were, sitting on the answer, just waiting to hear the DJ pick up the phone and say, “You are today’s lucky caller! For a fabulous gift, tell me the name of the song”. – Never happened. Either someone finally won, or the DJ gave up and picked a new record.
A little bit about Pinetop Perkins: Born Joe Willie Perkins, he learned to play Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie at a rather young age. And, people started calling him Pinetop. No, he didn’t write the song. There was another Pinetop: Pinetop Smith, who wrote the song in the 20’s. Pinetop Perkins was such a good young piano player that he was able to learn the song, and play it very well. As I mentioned earlier, he recorded it at Sun Records in the 50’s.
Allow me to skip ahead a few years: In 1969, In Chicago, Illinois, Pinetop Perkins replaced another great piano pounder, Otis Spann, when Mr. Spann left the world-famous Muddy Waters band.
Muddy Waters was doing very well in the late 60’s, as a young white audience had picked up on his music. He had continual bookings; and he had big record sales for a bluesman. When Mr. Spann decided to leave and start his own group, Pinetop hooked up with Muddy’s outfit, playing piano, for a good number of years.
Here’s where my story takes a little bit of a weird, coincidental turn. In 1953, my mom, brother Al III and I visited Mom’s family in the Highland Park section of Chattanooga, TN. That was the one big, cross country trip we took together. We made the trip via train, taking four days to get there. To this day, I recall how Al III and I used to play with a black man who came to lunch at my grandmother’s house every weekday. Grandma Randolph (my middle name is Randolph, I go by Randy. I’m named after my mom’s family) had a lunch kitchen set up in the large Randolph house, which was located across the street from a textile factory. There were a number of textile factories in Chattanooga (talk about a smoggy town, back in the day).
Quite a few of the factory workers would come to Grandma’s, have a seat, and buy lunch from her. She served both black and white folks at her little lunch spot. One black man took a liking to Al III and me, and would get right down on the floor and play with us, with our toy cars and things. He was kind, gentle, and soft-spoken. He was well-known to the family, since he dropped in five days per week for lunch. Al III and I used to call him Mr. Spam. Well, here’s the funny thing: Mom told me many, many times, when I got older, and after I got into music and started my own blues band, “Felix”, that the man who played with us was none other than Otis Spann, whom Pinetop Perkins had replaced in the Muddy Waters band. I would ask my mom, “Do you know how famous he became?” And she’d say, “Yes. I do. And he played on the floor with you”. – You know what? I can’t believe the man we grew so fond of on our Tennessee visit was really the Otis Spann, one of Muddy Waters’ two greatest pianists. But: would my mother lie to me? — Or was she simply mistaken? What would Otis Spann being doing in Chattanooga in 1952, working at a textile mill? I mean, it’s possible. — I swear, until she passed away in 1995, Mom stuck to her story.
Now we need to fast-forward to the new millennium. In 2003, when he was 90 years old, Pinetop Perkins, still going strong, was booked to play a show at Experience Music Project, where I was happily employed.
Filmmaker Martin Scorsese executive-produced a great PBS series, “The Blues”, which was all about blues music. Pinetop Perkins was featured in an episode which was entitled “Piano Blues”, directed by movie man/pianist Clint Eastwood. Pinetop was in town to do a show in conjunction not only with the TV series, which EMP’s Paul Allen had a hand in producing. To accompany the Scorsese series, EMP had created “Sweet Home Chicago”, an exhibit dedicated to the history of the blues. As you can glean from its title, the exhibit focused chiefly on the great sound of Chicago Blues. So having Pinetop Perkins do an EMP show was a great tie-in to both the PBS program and the EMP exhibit.
One day, I was just about to walk into Sound Lab, where I was stationed. At the exact moment I reached Sound Lab’s huge, heavily sound-proofed door, “Mark”, one of my co-workers, was escorting the one and only Pinetop Perkins into Sound Lab. Mark, a great guy who previously introduced me to the Door’s keyboard player, Ray Manzarek, asked me if I’d like to meet Pinetop. Well, I got to meet him and visit with him for a few minutes. More than anything (besides how gracious and friendly he was) I remember his suit. It was so beautiful. I think it was royal blue. It looked like it cost a million dollars. And he had a fabulous matching hat perched on that 90 year old head of his. Yep: he looked great, and he was really nice. And you know what? I was so excited to meet him that I forgot to tell him my story – about playing on the floor, in Tennessee with Otis Spann when I was four, and about trying to win a radio contest by identifying his Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie in the 50’s. But you know – even though I didn’t win the contest when I was eight, I got to meet the Pinetop Perkins. I can say I met Muddy Water’s two most famous piano players – one when I was four, one when I was 54. — Unless I didn’t…. What a life!
Pinetop lived to be 97 years old. He made many recordings, and won at least two Grammy awards for records he made when he was over 90 years old. He was still playing gigs, and had upcoming bookings, when he passed away. Today, the Pinetop Perkins Foundation helps educate young musicians. Pinetop’s legacy lives on, in the foundation and on countless recordings.
I was unable to find Pinetop’s original recording of his song. This version is a live recording from 1978, which he record with Muddy Waters.
Here’s a song written about Pinetop, and recorded by one of those great 50’s singers Mom and I loved listening to, Jo Stafford:
For information on the Pinetop Perkins Foundation, go here: