A Conversation with Pinetop Perkins

A Conversation with Pinetop Perkins



Pinetop at the October 2010 Pinetop Perkins Homecoming Celebration riding in a golf cart with his manager Pat Morgan!

Pinetop at the October 2010 Pinetop Perkins Homecoming Celebration riding in a golf cart with his manager Pat Morgan! Photo by The Delta Bohemian

The legendary Grammy-winning blues pianist Willie “Pinetop” Perkins died Monday, March 21, 2011, in Austin, TX. Pinetop was slated to attend his 12th annual Pinetop Perkins Homecoming Celebration in Clarksdale at Hopson’s Commissary (the plantation where he had been an ace tractor driver) and the Shack Up Inn in October.

The following conversation was the first published article by Billy “Poor William” Howell. It was run in the Clarksdale Press Register in May, 2008.

Why move back to Clarksdale?

This was asked a thousand times while in the mountains of Colorado, and it was always answered the same way: “It’s time to; I’ve been through a lot, and I want to go home!”

Temporal salvation is often found in the most unlikely places – like Clarksdale.  I had been gone for more than 20 years — mostly out West. Much had changed; little had changed; that which had changmed was good; that which had stayed the same was good. There is comfort in continuity, particularly to one who has consumed change for two score years and then some.

With the recent passing of my Dad, whom I did get to know a bit better before he died, I have not had a day in which I have not thought of death, life and what remains of the latter.  It is sobering to see so many loved ones passing (gently and often not) into Dylan Thomas’s “Good Night.”

I want to know what has inspired men and women on their journey, what has scared them, what do they regret, what did they have to make peace with in the most difficult of circumstances, what are they proud of, who do they miss, what do they cherish, where do they think they made a difference, and what do they think about as the long evening approaches. I want to listen and learn, but also, I want to listen for their sake.

How often do those of us who call ourselves God’s children not listen, and in not listening, not recognize the inherent value and intrinsic worth of all for whom Christ died?  Mea culpa — I am guilty as charged!

My conversation on a recent evening with the 94-year-old legend “Pinetop” Perkins was one of the easiest, most enjoyable conversations that I can remember, and many of my Socratic meanderings were simply rewarded.

It was a bucolic, spring day in the Mississippi Delta, and I had just finished an educational meeting at the school where I teach. I came home, checked on my daughter, and headed up to a local watering hole to have a drink and chat with my friend Dixie. I ordered her favorite splash — Citron over ice — and she added a pigtail twist of lime. We discussed business, drinks and sundry other items of interest, on which bartenders and patrons regularly pontificate.

Well into a fine discourse, one in which her husband Stan’s musical skills and versatility were prominent, who should saunter into the front door of a local restaurant but two Patties and Pinetop Perkins, the piano player of legend and alliteration.

He was dressed very nattily, with white socks replete with black piano keys stenciled on them, a cane with the handle carved like a piano keyboard, and a sharp, black-striped cap.

I told the two Patties, one his manager and the other one a local chiropractor, that I would like to meet him. When introduced to Pinetop, he apologized for his hands smelling like dogs and cats; he said he loves petting dogs and cats. I escorted him to the restroom, where he washed away the remnant of dog and cat, but the familiar fragrance readily lingered in his psyche.

Mr. Perkins wanted to smoke a cigarette, so I joined him in front of the restaurant and offered him a chair. I had “quit” a few days earlier, but knew that I must and would bum a smoke from Pinetop’s pack, opened at the wrong end.

He smoked More menthol, long and slender like his limber fingers of lore. He told me his name was Joe Willie, but he used to be called Bob Willie. He said he had a dog named Bob, a long time ago, so they called him Bob Willie because of his dog. He loved that dog.

Pinetop said, “The man shot my dog, so I left ’cause I was afraid he would shoot me next, so I left.  Then they started calling me Joe Willie. I loved that dog.”

I asked Joe Willie if he still played some. He said, “Yep, played with Muddy Waters too; we played over in Europe; made some money with Muddy!”

I wondered how he got his nickname.  He said from another fellow named Pinetop.

Pinetop’s eyes had a bluish hue, translucent almost, full of mystery not so much, but seeming to hold tales long forgotten, yet slightly remembered out of time and place.

We talked “men talk,” and came back inside to join the Patties and a burgeoning crowd of friends and guests in the bar.

John Ruskey, Quapaw canoeist extraordinaire, came by and spoke gently and reverently to Mr. Perkins. Pinetop loved John’s rugged-individualist hat— a mobile, Mainstreet landmark.

Pinetop ate a bit, had a cup of decaf, and then we smoked again. When two little children took a walk outside of the restaurant with their parents, Pinetop came alive. He spoke to them effervescently, fondly stating how much he loves children and animals. We discussed Bob again, the cost of gas to run a van all the way from Austin — his home now — and smoked one more cigarette.

I left a better man, my soul enriched not by a legend, but by a sweet, humble, gentle-spirited man, with a fondness for music, Muddy, children and dogs — particularly one named Bob.



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  1. Kim "Moma Sita" Crouch says:

    Love this! Hope you don’t mind me sharing on Facebook…

  2. Pat Morgan says:

    I remember that night! And really remember how magical it was for you. Thank you so much for sharing. Now we are trying to keep some of that magic alive through the Pinetop Foundation. It’s the old guy’s legacy.

  3. Waite Ligon says:

    Billy, That was a great interview and article! Then and now. Now I know that you can be “right” when you want to.

  4. God bless Pinetop. You will be missed sir. thanks for the story again DB.

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