It’s always sad, at least to me, when the musical world loses another beloved blues icon, whether those who populate it know it or not. Put it this way, I’m fairly certain the vast majority of today’s most popular musical talent (I refuse to call far too many of them actual musicians) didn’t shed a tear when they heard of Pinetop Perkins’ death at the age of 97 on Monday.
Which shouldn’t surprise me, they’ve probably never heard of him.
Yet if they’d been paying attention at all they’d be aware of the fact that Perkins, at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards, became the oldest musician to ever receive a Grammy (for Best Traditional Blues Album). Not only that, the man’s history of performance spans decades, eight of them to be exact. I don’t know about you, but I have serious doubts that, seventy years from now, the Justin Biebers, Christina Aguileras and Lady Gagas of the world – as well as their fans – will be able to say the same.
Then again, I’m sure most people back in 1970 couldn’t have imagined Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts still shaking it on stage eleven years into the 21st century.
Like those who’ve passed-on before him – Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Willie Dixon, T-Bone Walker, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, Albert and Freddie King, John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins, Otis Spann (Perkins replaced Spann in Waters’ band following his departure) and too many others to list here, Perkins was the Real Deal. A bonafide blues pianist and one of the last of the Mississippi Delta bluesmen.
Their names have always seemed almost other-worldly to me, especially throughout my teenage years when I was first learning to play blues guitar. Those days – and I’ll be the first to admit it – I was a complete and utter music snob. If it wasn’t blues, it wasn’t worth my time. And while I’m glad that – over the years – I’ve gained an appreciation for most (but certainly not all) forms of music, it always comes back to the blues.
As far as I’m concerned, it always will.
The blues, as a genre, is the bedrock upon which all popular music today is built, believe it or not. It’s not “that old people music” as many youngsters all over the country would like to think it is. It’s certainly not the sad, tired form it’s often labeled by the those who simply don’t know any better. It’s an American art form unlike any other. The only things that come close are baseball and jazz.
Not only that but, in the past half-century or so, the blues has (for the most part) transcended color and race. In fact, it was a young, white crowd in England that, in many ways, rediscovered the blues and returned it to America. Remember Beatlemania and the British Invasion?
Artists such as Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck – among many, many others – were instrumental in bringing the blues back across the Atlantic. In addition, blues legends like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Otis Spann enjoyed a much-deserved resurgence in popularity when they were invited to visit Europe. It’s actually kind of sad when you think about it, that musical giants such as those I mentioned had to travel thousands of miles from their homes to find the recognition they rightly deserved here in America.
And now we’ve lost one of the last of delta bluesmen. I can hardly imagine the amount of knowledge Pinetop Perkins must have had on the blues’ early days. Juke joints and field hollers, plantations, racism and, most importantly, the music itself. Again, the saddest part of it all is that so few people understand the value of what we lost on Monday.
Thankfully, we still have some serious blues talent with us today. Musicians like B.B. King and Buddy Guy, Clapton, Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks. Not to mention the second (or third, or fourth) generation players like Bernard Allison (son of Luther Allison) and Shemekia Copeland (daughter of Johnny Copeland).
And while it sometimes seems as if we lose more and more of genre’s legendary talent every year, it’s enough to know that – no matter what – as long as there are people out there who understand the importance of this music, its historical relevance and the lessons it can teach us, the blues will live on.
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