Legendary bluesman Pinetop Perkins died March 21 at age 97. One month earlier, he won a Grammy.
Legendary bluesman Pinetop Perkins died March 21 at age 97. One month earlier, he won a Grammy. Credit: Jesse Lirola

When I arrived at Delmark’s Riverside Studios last November with my partner at Swississippi Records, Chris Harper, neither of us could’ve known that the session we’d set up with Pinetop Perkins would be the last recording of the blues pianist’s long and amazing life. After a career in music spanning more than 80 years, Perkins died in his sleep at his home in Austin, Texas, on March 21. He was 97.

Credit: Jesse Lirola

The Pinetop record Harper and I hoped to make would be the fourth project for our young label. We planned to record it the same way we had Harper’s Four Aces and a Harp, a 2010 album of acoustic and electric traditional blues that paired his harmonica with an all-star band: bassist Bob Stroger, guitarists Jimmy Burns and John Primer, and drummer and harpist Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. Those sessions were old-school, with the musicians in one room together and a minimum of overdubs—it was a wonderful experience, and everyone involved brought his talent and his heart into it. We set out to create the same magic with Pinetop. With the exception of longtime Pinetop guitarist Little Frank Krakowski, who replaced Burns, we had all the same people aboard, and once again I’d be producing and engineering.

First we had to coordinate schedules. While I was locking down dates with Patricia Morgan, Pinetop’s manager, I suggested waiting until the Blues Fest in June, since he was booked to appear there anyway. She suggested that it would be better to do it sooner rather than later, and we scheduled the sessions for November 4 and 5. Because Stroger and Smith were on the road with Pinetop at the time, they were easy to get as a package. Morgan also suggested that we bring in a patient young woman to assist Pinetop and keep him on task. He lit up when we introduced him to Tasha Gallimore, niece of Delmark Records general manager Steve Wagner. She sat with Pinetop while he did his tracking, and she would get coffee or water for him whenever he asked.

The session was spirited and Pinetop’s performance went from good to brilliant. And at the end of almost every take, he would add either a snippet of “Jingle Bells” or “Shave and a Haircut” (though he’d sing “ten cents” instead of “two bits”). We stopped counting these tags after literally 164 of them. Pinetop knew they were driving me nuts, and every time I’d walk from the control booth into the live room to adjust a microphone, he’d play another one, then look over at me and grin. At one point he broke into a version of “Ida Mae,” an old song he hadn’t recorded in more than 30 years. Stroger and Smith, both longtime sidemen of Pinetop’s, were stunned and pleased to hear him dig that one out, and everyone in the studio was amazed to see his joy as he moved through song after song. He was at home with his friends and with the music.

A month before he died, Pinetop won a Grammy for best traditional blues album for Joined at the Hip (Telarc), which he’d cut with Smith, Stroger, and Primer, among others. Swississippi plans to release his final recording eventually, but we don’t have a date in mind yet. I’m also working on a book collecting some of Jesse Lirola’s photos from the sessions, which we hope to have published by Christmas. In the meantime, what was supposed to be Pinetop’s set at the Chicago Blues Festival on Saturday has become a tribute to his memory. 

Credit: Jesse Lirola
Credit: Jesse Lirola
Pinetop Perkins, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, and Bob Stroger take a bagel break in the studio’s kitchen. The author is in the background.

“Pine was like a brother and a father to me. He is the reason why I play the blues,” Stroger said.Credit: Jesse Lirola