Usually, a lifetime-achievement award is the sort of accolade you collect when your best days have long since passed. In other words, it’s your cue to ride gracefully into the sunset.
But Pinetop still had work to do. He played keys on the entirety of Willie Smith’s 2006 record, Way Back, despite being 92 during the recording process.
“His manager didn’t want him to play on the whole record, thinking he might get tired,” says Corritore, who produced the album. “But Pinetop would not leave the session. That was where he wanted to be, and he wanted to play on every song.”
Perkins won his first competitive Grammy in 2007 for Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas, an album he recorded with Henry Townsend, David Edwards and Robert Lockwood Jr. In 2010, he again reignited his 40-year-old partnership with Willie Smith to make Joined at the Hip. It won in February for Best Traditional Blues Album, giving Perkins his second competitive Grammy and earning him the title of oldest winner ever.
A little more than a month later, on March 21, 2011, Pinetop Perkins died at his home in Austin. He was 97 years old.
Smith and Perkins had a handful of concert dates planned through the summer, which Smith plans to keep. But he admits that Perkins’ departure will leave a void on the stage.
“It just won’t be the same,” Smith says. “The music will be the same, but not the feel of the band. We’d been doing this for so long.”
Bennett, now an artist and a writer in Boston, remembers Perkins as an easygoing man who didn’t like to create a commotion or cause a fuss. Years ago, Bennett was with Perkins and his bandmates as they were ordering food at a Chinese restaurant. Everyone was seated at a big, round table, reading through their dinner options intently. Perkins, having only had a few years of schooling in Mississippi, was also studying his menu — upside down.
“Whoever was sitting next to him said, ‘I’ll have the pork fried rice’ or whatever. And he said, ‘Yeah, I’ll have the pork fried rice too,’ ” Bennett laughs. “That was very typical.”
Willie Smith might’ve known Perkins better than anyone. The two hadn’t gone more than a few years without collaborating since they first played together behind Waters in 1969, and they had plans for another record to follow Joined at the Hip. Yet, for all of the musical successes the two shared over the years, Smith mostly loved Perkins for his kind, low-key nature.
“What I liked best about him is it didn’t go to his head,” Smith says. “All he wanted to do was sit down, play his piano and have the pretty girls watch him.”