Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins got a late start as a solo artist, after supplying the piano background for the likes of Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2, and Earl Hooker for decades. But his piano mastery became so celebrated among blues audiences in the 1980s and ‘90s that the Blues Foundation finally had to remove his name from the Blues Music Awards’ annual list of nominees and retitle the category “Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the Year.” Born on July 7, 1913, on the Honey Island Plantation, near Belzoni, Mississippi, Perkins started out on guitar, but he also learned piano as a youngster, influenced by local pianists and by the records of Clarence “Pine Top” Smith and others. Smith’s “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie” of 1929 was so popular that many pianists, including Perkins, took up boogie woogie and sometimes even adopted the name “Pine Top” or “Pinetop.” His first professional job in music was as a guitarist with blues legend Robert Nighthawk. In the 1940s Perkins played piano on radio broadcasts with Nighthawk and with Williamson on KFFA in Helena, Arkansas. During the World War II years Perkins also drove a tractor on the Hopson plantation near Clarksdale, where an annual celebration is now held in his honor. In Clarksdale he later mentored a young Ike Turner on piano and began working with another prodigy, guitarist Earl Hooker. Perkins first recorded as pianist on a Nighthawk session in Chicago in 1950. In 1953 Perkins recorded two versions of “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” when he and Earl Hooker did a session together for Sun Records in Memphis, but the tracks remained unissued until they appeared on a British album in the 1970s. In 1969, when Otis Span left the Muddy Waters band, Muddy called on Perkins to take his place. International touring and recording with Muddy brought him widespread recognition, and he made his first album in 1976 for a French label, Black & Blue. In 1980 Perkins and other band members left Muddy and formed the Legendary Blues Band. After recording two albums with the unit, Perkins embarked on his belated solo career. Although he did not have a full album under his own name in the United States until he was 75 years old (in 1988), during the next two decades he recorded more than 15 LPs and CDs as the reigning patriarch of blues piano. The Pinetop Perkins Blues Museum and Cultural Center was established in his honor by his home town of Belzoni in 2010. On March 21, 2011, three weeks after receiving a Grammy award for Joined at the Hip, a CD he shared with former Muddy Waters bandmate Willie Smith, Perkins died in his sleep at his home in Austin, Texas.

— Jim O’Neal