Celebrating more than 40 years playing together, and a combined age of 170, pianist Willie “Pinetop” Perkins, 97, and drummer/harpist Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, 73, are dropping some serious blues on San Antonio this weekend. Pinetop, an accomplished pianist, joined the genre-busting Muddy Waters band in the 1960s. That’s when he first met Smith, already a veteran drummer of the Waters tour, and the two formed a fast friendship. They co-founded the Legendary Blues Band in 1980 and pursued successful solo careers, each garnering several Grammy nominations, plus a lifetime achievement award for Perkins. With Smith back on his original instrument, the harmonica (the harp to blues aficianados), and sharing vocal duties, the pair released Joined at the Hip on Telarc earlier this summer, largely written by Smith, with some standards from the pair’s shared Delta blues heritage. We called Smith at his Chicago home to talk about his old friend and new album.
I understand you and Pinetop are having a show to celebrate his 97th birthday. Is that the actual birthday?
Well, his birthday is the seventh of July, but he will be 97.
How long have you been friends?
We’ve been really friends since 1969. We kind of knew each other before then. We were working with different people, so we didn’t really see too much of one another until he joined the Muddy Waters band, which I was already in.
What made y’all such good friends?
A good band, people all got the same idea. Musically, you’re married `laughs`, and everything that comes with it. Actually, Pinetop and I was room buddies together on tour. We had a chance to do nothing else but talk and exchange ideas and how it was and how it is and how you’re feeling. We just got to be real good friends.
Why is your album called Joined at the Hip?
We play together and we understand each other so well, the producer decided it would be a good idea to make a CD with Pinetop and me and call it Joined at the Hip. Everybody said that was a good idea. It wasn’t hard for us to do the record. We pretty much played straightforward the whole way. So that was easy. We did it, and here it is, you got it.
Can you talk about joining the Muddy Waters band?
I had been born and raised in Arkansas, and I came to Chicago at a pretty young age — 17 years old — but I wasn’t playing any music. A week or so when I was here, I started playing music. My mother used to give house parties every week, so there would always be a lot of people around. Clifton James and me and a boy called Bobby Lee Burns formed a band just to play at the house parties. We practiced every day. This is like ’53. I was doing nightclubs in ’54. It didn’t take me but about six months to get there. About ’57, Muddy used to give matinees every Sunday — it was like a big jam for everybody. At that point I was playing drums in a different band, and we got on the bandstand. Then Muddy got back up, and he wanted me to come sit in with the band, so I sit in with his band, and from that point on it was like, he liked it! So every time I would go around him, I’d always sit in with his band.
Was he already famous?
Oh, yes, Muddy was very famous at that point. He went and did a record in 1958 that I did with him. The LP was a tribute to Big Bill Broonzy. You’ve heard of him, huh? From that point on, things started to be history. He had a drummer named Francis Clay, but his sister was sick, and he’d have to go back and forth to see about her. When Clay would leave, Muddy would call me, and I would just go play in his place until he came back. He sent for me permanently in 1961.
I read somewhere that you tried to retire from playing music early in your career.
When I decided I wasn’t going to play music anymore, I had gotten married and I was raising a family. The money to make ends meet and feed a family just wasn’t there. I played from ’61 to the middle of ’64, and then I decided I didn’t want to play no more. Muddy got a new drummer. I went to taking different jobs, which was nice. I really didn’t want to play no more, and to make sure I wouldn’t play no more, I wouldn’t even go around where any musician was playing. But it was hard! It was something I really wanted to do. And the jobs that I had, I really liked them, but they just didn’t fill my satisfaction. Then my wife and I had started to argue a little bit. We just kind of lost respect for each other, you know what I mean? So we quit on a good note. Then Muddy happened to call me back. I was driving a taxi cab at the time and happened to pick up his wife and son downtown and brought them home. When I brought them home, I just got out of the cab and came inside. Me and Muddy sat down at the table, and he asked me if I wanted to come back. I thought about it for about a minute. I said, ‘Yeah, let me think about it,’ and he said, ‘The money’s much better,’ and I said, ‘I guess you knew where I was going.’ It wasn’t as much as I was already making, but I was glad to get away because me and my wife were busting up anyway, so that was a chance for me to just get away.
Have you ever thought about retiring since then?
Retiring from what?
`Laughs` Not till I have to! Let’s look at it for what it is — you’re talking about retiring, but there’s people who work all of their lives to do what I’m doing. I’m fortunate to go all around the world and get partially paid for it. There’s people that work all their lives to do this for just a short period. So why would I want to retire? •
Pinetop Perkins and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith
8pm Fri Jul 30
Sam’s Burger Joint
330 E. Grayson
Joseph William “Pinetop” Perkins
Born in Belzoni, Mississippi, in 1913 — the same year as the Woolworth Building, Henry Ford’s assembly line, and the zipper — he began playing the blues on guitar and piano in 1927, but quit the guitar in the ’40s after injuring his left arm. In 1953, he recorded Pinetop Smith’s “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” at Sam Phillips’s Sun Records and few people have called him Joe or Willy since. Perkins joined up with Muddy Waters (who was two years Perkins’s junior) in 1969 and recorded with him for 12 years. Perkins, along with Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, left the group in 1980 to form the Legendary Blues Band, which recorded two albums. Perkins released his solo debut, After Hours, in 1988 and began touring as a headliner in 1992 — just before his 80th birthday. In 2003 he was featured in the Clint Eastwood-directed “Piano Blues” segment of Martin Scorsese’s PBS documentary The Blues, and in 2005 he received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement.
Willie “Big Eyes“ Smith
Call Willie “Big Eyes” Smith “Little Willie” at your own peril these days, but that’s the name this Helena, Arkansas, native started out under back in the early 1950s. Though he’s arguably most famous for his drum work on Muddy Waters’s Grammy-winning albums, including They Call Me Muddy Waters, The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album, and Hard Again, Smith originally played harmonica with the likes of Clifton James, Bo Diddley, and Arthur “Big Boy” Spires before picking up the sticks to fill in for Waters’s drummer Francis Clay in 1961. Along with Pinetop Perkins, Smith has toured with the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Eric Clapton, and Smith and Perkins can be seen playing behind Waters in the classic 1978 concert film The Last Waltz and behind John Lee Hooker in 1980’s The Blues Brothers. At 74, Smith will still step out from behind the kit to play the “harp” or sing lead, and if he follows Perkins’s example, Smith will still be doing so for decades to come.
Pinetop Perkins and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Joined at the Hip (Telarc 2010)
Smith told the Current “Cut That Out” is the push song, but the entire album exudes a joy rarely heard in the blues.
Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Way Back (Hightone 2006)
With his son Kenny “Beady Eyes” Smith (seriously) taking drum duty, Big Eyes wows with haunting vocals and smooth harmonica, especially on the incomparable “Blues and Trouble.”
Pinetop Perkins, Portrait of a Delta Bluesman (Vanguard 1993)
Combining his best-known work with short interview segments, including his explanation of the fight that ended his guitar career, Perkins delivers a blues and history lesson in one.
The Legendary Blues Band, Red Hot’n’ Blue (Rounder 1983)
This short album highlights the fine musicianship of many of Muddy Waters’s band members, and Perkins shines on vocal duties.
Muddy Waters, Hard Again (Blue Sky 1977)
Perkins and Smith contribute mightily to Waters’s “comeback” album, a near-perfect example of all the blues should be, with the best version of “Mannish Boy” ever recorded.