Born in Belzoni, Miss., in 1913, Perkins grew up as a guitarist who just happened to play piano. He got his start performing at house parties around the Mississippi Delta during the Great Depression, eventually making his way north to Helena in the early ’40s. It was at a bar there, in 1942, that Perkins suffered a stab wound that severely damaged tendons in his left arm. The injury forced him to drop the guitar and make the switch to piano full time. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Perkins was out of Arkansas by the 1950s, and though he kept a low profile over the next two decades, he maintained his craft by playing and recording with Hooker, the renowned Chicago blues guitarist.
Then, in 1969, Perkins caught the attention of Waters, a man often called “the Father of Chicago Blues.” Waters was looking for a new pianist, and he asked Perkins to join his backing band. Perkins obliged. And whether by pure coincidence or twist of fate, he was already acquainted with one of his new bandmates: Willie Smith.
Right around the time Perkins joined up with Earl Hooker in the ’50s, Smith had moved to Chicago, learned the harmonica and played with musicians around town. After a few years, he switched to drums and garnered attention for his work with a group called the Red Devil Trio. When Waters’ former drummer, Francis Clay, needed time off to visit his ill sister, Smith would fill in.
“I played with them and Muddy liked it, but I didn’t say nothing,” Smith says. “A matinee was just another jam session, as far as I was concerned.”
But Waters was impressed. He invited Smith to a recording session in 1958, then asked him on full time about two and a half years later.
“That was the top of the line at that time for me,” Smith says.
When Perkins joined in 1969, he and Smith were reunited for the first time since they’d met in Helena more than 20 years before. It was a great success story: Both men had come from meager upbringings to share the stage with one of the most respected names in the history of the blues.
But they were still broke.
Just before Perkins joined the band, Smith quit temporarily to drive a cab in Chicago. He made more money than he ever had playing behind Muddy.
Worse yet, bands like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones were starting to cash in on the blues — they just weren’t calling it that.
“It was the same words, the same lyrics, but they just speeded it up and called it rock ‘n’ roll,” Smith says. “For the urban blues, like Muddy played, times kind of got tough.”
Cat Bennett, who married Waters’ harmonica player, Jerry Portnoy, in 1977, remembers that “they had to work so hard, two or three shows every night. In some clubs, they had to do a matinee on a Sunday afternoon. And after that gig was up, they got into these two station wagons at 3 in the morning and drove 10 or 12 hours to the next gig.”