In 1969 in Buffalo, N.Y., a wiry, middle-aged chain smoker sat in on piano during a jam session and earned a spot in the band of legendary bluesman Muddy Waters.
By then, Pinetop Perkins had already performed with the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson and slide guitarist Robert Nighthawk. The old school bluesman with the aggressive keyboard style and gravelly voice had played the rickety bars among the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta, and toured with rock pioneer Ike Turner in the 1950s.
“Muddy came by, and heard him jamming, and he liked what he heard. The rest is history,” said Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, who was a drummer in the band.
By the time he and Waters hooked up, Pinetop was in his 50s and “had more energy than us younger folks did,” Smith said.
That verve kept him playing the blues and collecting Grammy Awards until shortly before his death from cardiac arrest Monday at his Austin, Texas, home. He was 97.
Perkins’ skills came not from any sort of formal training but from an innate ability and love for a musical form that arose from the South’s plantation system.
“I didn’t get no schooling. I come up the hard way in the world,” Perkins told The Associated Press in a 2009 interview.
Bob Corritore, a harmonica player who performed occasionally with Perkins and produced some of his work, said, “Pinetop could find the cracks and fill them in and be the glue and mortar of the whole band.”
Fellow great bluesman B.B. King was saddened by the loss of his friend.
“He was one of the last great Mississippi Bluesmen. He had such a distinctive voice, and he sure could play the piano. He will be missed not only by me, but by lovers of music all over the world,” King said in an emailed statement.
Perkins won a Grammy in February for best traditional blues album for “Joined at the Hip: Pinetop Perkins & Willie “Big Eyes” Smith.” That win made Perkins the oldest Grammy winner, edging out late comedian George Burns, who was 95 when he won in the spoken category for “Gracie: A Love Story” in 1990.
Perkins also won a 2007 Grammy for best traditional blues album for his collaboration on the “Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas.” He received a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2005.
Neil Portnow, president of The Recording Academy that awards the Grammys, called Perkins “a legendary bluesman and master piano player.”
“A force to be reckoned with, his robust playing style and distinctive voice were unmistakable,” Portnow said. “Whether performing solo or jamming with other notable talent, his charisma and energy stood out in every song. His legacy has informed and inspired so many generations, and will continue to do so for many more to come.”
Even at his advanced age, Perkins was a fixture at Austin clubs, playing regular gigs up to last month. He had more than 20 performances booked this year, said Perkins’ agent Hugh Southard. And after they won the Grammy this year, Smith and Perkins discussed recording another CD.