Noisy crowds in smoky bars don't bother 96-year-old bluesman Pinetop Perkins.
It's all part of his job. Most nights, after he snuffs out his menthol cigarette, Perkins slides onto the piano bench in some club and eases into a wail about hard times and treacherous women.
Perkins is believed to be the oldest of the old-time Delta blues musicians still performing. In an 80-year career, he has traveled through juke joints, nightclubs and festival stages shared with the likes of John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters.
In a telephone interview after a gig last month at a jazz club in Oakland, Calif., the old bluesman summed up his performance simply: "Looks like the folks loved what I was doing last night."
And he's not done yet.
The two-time Grammy winner is at work on another album, due out in 2010.
"I thank the Lord for me being here all the time. I play any piano with a good tune," Perkins said.
He has outlived most of his contemporaries, though time has slowed his steps and impaired his hearing. His colleagues say the musical sagacity acquired from a lifetime in the blues remains strong.
"Perkins is appreciated in 2009 not just for his survival, but for being a classic Chicago bluesman," said guitarist Bob Margolin, a former Muddy Waters band member. "While many younger musicians pay tribute to that music, Pinetop is that music."
Perkins comes from the generation of artists who worked their way from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago, stopping in Memphis and St. Louis along the way. They eventually fused a new sound of country twang and urban grit that became known as Chicago blues.
Perkins wasn't formally taught on the piano. He learned by watching others, and he still can't read sheet music. Yet his style has influenced rock icons like the Rolling Stones and Ike Turner. With age come faded memories and blurred details, and Perkins has difficulty recalling his experiences with Waters and other bluesmen.
However, when asked about his longevity during a break at a recent music tribute to him in Clarksdale, Perkins replied: "I always try to do something different all the time."
The Pinetop Perkins Homecoming was held in October at Hopson Plantation, where Perkins worked as a tractor driver in the 1940s.
About a dozen blues players performed before a crowd of hundreds while Perkins sat quietly at a table, smoking cigarettes, a habit he picked up at age 9. He had played the day before at the annual Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival.
"It's simply amazing for a 96-year-old man to still be able to perform on a piano like that. He just lays back and relaxes and seems like the music just pumps out of his fingers," said Jimmi Mayes, a drummer who plays in the band of another Muddy Waters band alumnus, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith of Chicago.
In addition to playing the blues, Perkins seeks to nurture them. The Pinetop Perkins Foundation was created to help young blues artists. The foundation has received a $3,500 grant from Morgan Freeman's foundation to provide scholarships for a blues piano workshop planned for August in Clarksdale, said Perkins' manager, Pat Morgan.
Perkins and Smith are wrapping work on Pinetop Perkins-Willie Smith Joined at the Hip for the Telarc International label. The record, expected to be released in the spring, includes mostly original songs written by Smith, Morgan said.
Perkins, whose real first name is Willie, was born in 1913 in Belzoni, Miss. He has lived the evolution of blues music, spending his early years playing in the Delta. In the 1940s, he performed with Williamson on the popular King Biscuit Time radio show broadcast daily on KFFA in Helena, Ark.
For more than half a century, Perkins was content being a blues sideman.
"He may not have been a front man all those years, but he was there in the middle of it. He was skilled enough to be able to stay and do it all of his life, and move from one big band to the next and do it all as times changed," said Brett Bonner, editor of Living Blues Magazine.
Boogie Woogie King was Perkins' first solo record in 1976. Beginning in 1992 with Pinetop's Boogie Woogie, he released a string of 15 albums in as many years.
He won a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2005, followed by the 2007 Best Traditional Blues Album for his collaboration on The Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas.
With an ailing heart, Perkins moved to Austin, Texas, in 2004. He has no family, and lives with Barry Nowlin, a Morgan associate.
"He got into a different environment and he started feeling better and got out of his health risk," Nowlin said. "Then, he won his lifetime Grammy award, and after that he got up and decided he wanted to keep playing music and performing."