Yesterday, legendary bluesman Pinetop Perkins died. Pinetop was 97 years old. He was one of the greatest boogie-woogie piano players ever to strike those keys. I could go on and list all of his awards and accolades because Pinetop has received some of music’s highest distinctions. He recently received a Grammy, making him the oldest Grammy winner on record bumping George Burns. He had previously been awarded a lifetime achievement Grammy.
But rather than go on and list more of Pinetops achievements, which can be quickly googled, I’d like to share some personal experiences I had with Pinetop over the years. I first met Pinetop and his manager Pat Morgan in 2001 when I was shooting my Delta Bluesmen Project. It was my very first multimedia project where I was shooting still environmental portraits of blues musicians, images and b-roll video of the Mississippi Delta region and interviews of legendary blues musicians from this part of America. I had no idea what I was taking on by myself – I just had this crazy idea that I needed to document these men before they died and I had no time to waste since the youngest was in his 70’s. So, I just decided to do it with the unstoppable enthusiasm of a kid.
When I first contacted Pinetop’s manager Pat to set up an on camera interview with Pine, she quite firmly rejected my request. Pat was very protective of Pinetop and never wanted to overload him with interviews and fan requests and she had already granted an interview to another filmmaker, so I was out of luck. But I was persistent and Pat finally said that I should come to Pinetop’s homecoming party at Hopson’s Plantation in Clarksdale, MS and get what I could catch of Pinetop there. The day of the homecoming, I was allowed to put a lav on Pinetop to get better audio of his interactions with people throughout the day. One reason Pat thought the homecoming would be a good opportunity for me was because Ike Turner was going to be there. Pinetop had taught Ike to play piano during the 1940’s when they were both working at Hopson’s Plantation and this was going to be a true homecoming.
I put the wireless on Pinetop and kind of forgot about it as the day went on. I was roving around the plantation getting great b-roll and then went into the commissary where there was a big music jam going on. I had taken my earphones off outside, but quickly put them back on to protect my hearing in this incredibly loud environment. I dialed the audio way down on the camera mic but Pinetop’s wireless was still loud and clear. All a sudden I heard Pine and Pat talking about giving Ike a little tour and showing him Pinetop’s old sharecropper shack. I glanced around the commissary looking for them and couldn’t see them – I could just hear them. So, I raced outside, camera in hand just in time to see Pat, Pinetop, Ike Turner and a couple of other people walking across the grounds of the plantation headed toward Pinetop’s shack, just as the sun was setting. I caught up to the group and managed to get some great b- roll and audio of this historic moment. With camera running, I followed them inside the shack where Pinetop naturally sat down at the piano and started to play with Ike chiming in. I was in b-roll heaven and just hoping I was getting it right in camera.
After that little tour was over Pat came up to me and told me that she had worked with a lot of photographers and filmmakers over the years but had never seen instincts like mine. She said she was blown away when I just showed up out of nowhere to film this mini event. Then she told me that if I could come by the next morning, I could get an interview with Pinetop. I did come back the next day and spent a memorable morning with Pinetop on the porch of his old shack. I will never forget that morning – the quiet and the warmth of the place and the man and the moment. You can see some of that footage in this 7 minute sample of my film. The still images and video component of that project is still being exhibited around the country.
I’ve stayed in touch with Pat and Pinetop over the years. In 2005 when Pinetop was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Grammy, the producers used some of my interview footage of Pine in his tribute film. I was there with Pinetop and Pat and a whole lot of rock legends like Jerry Lee Lewis, Ike Turner and Jimmi Page. Another memory etched in my mind.
The last time I saw Pinetop was at the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival (aka King Biscuit) in 2009. We were driving somewhere with Pat and she noticed that we had a small army blanket in our car and asked to borrow it for Pinetop that evening. It was a chilly October evening and she didn’t want Pinetop (95 years old then) to get cold that evening as he waited in the wings to go on stage. That night when I was shooting from the photo pit I saw Pinetop sitting just off stage with my army blanket wrapped around him and his customary cigarette hanging out of his mouth. I thought for a second, “I hope he doesn’t burn a hole in my blanket” and then I quickly thought that I wouldn’t mind if he did. In fact if he did burn a hole, I’d be reminded of him every time I saw it. The blanket was returned unscarred – but I still think of Pinetop every time I see that blanket in the back of my car.
I’ll miss you Pinetop. But I sure am glad I got to know you. We’ll always have your music and the wonderful memories you gave us all.