By the time I get Willie “Big Eyes” Smith on the phone, it’s been a week.
I didn’t plan to wait until now to call. In fact, I’d gotten the number from his manager almost a week before it happened, back when this story had a slightly different premise. It was supposed to be about a musical relationship that had endured for decades, one that had produced a nimiety of influential music and still had some good years left in it. But that’s all changed.
Because by the time I dial Smith’s number and hear him answer in his unmistakable gravelly drawl, it’s been a week since Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins — a respected blues pianist and a man Smith had known for nearly 60 years – passed away at his home in Austin, Texas.
Perkins didn’t die young. In fact, he proved incredibly resilient for a man who ate at McDonald’s every day, drank well into his 80s and sucked cigarettes like they were lollipops. And you won’t find anybody who’ll tell you he got cheated out of one second of his life. Perkins lived on his terms, cutting records, touring prolifically and schmoozing pretty girls until he was nearly 100.
But there is, understandably, a certain amount of sorrow over losing someone who meant so much to so many people.
As best as Smith can remember, he was 7 years old the first time he met Perkins, a Mississippi-born boogie-woogie man whose budding music career had taken him to Smith’s hometown of Helena, Ark. Back then, Perkins had a regular gig with Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Lockwood Jr. on the King Biscuit Time radio show, and he’d spend his Saturday afternoons playing matinees for extra cash.
“I got to see all those guys,” Smith recalls. “But I didn’t really know who [Perkins] was.”
Few people did. For decades, Pinetop Perkins picked out perfect harmonies on his piano for some of the biggest names in blues — Muddy Waters, Earl Hooker, even B.B. King for a while — yet, like most backing men, his contributions were often reduced to half an inch in the liner notes, his name only known to the most ardent fans. But Perkins didn’t quit. He was too good to quit.
“He always had the right thing to play,” says Bob Corritore, a harmonica player and record producer who worked with Perkins on numerous occasions. “He could listen to everything that was going on and find the cracks in the mortar of every song.”
So Perkins took a backseat to a series of legendary frontmen for years — the better part of a century, actually — until finally, a few years shy of his 80th birthday, he decided he was done as a backing man.