Blues Ambassadors

Pinetop Perkins headlines this weekend's 'Boogie Woogie Blowout'

Local pianist and singer Lisa Otey is like a musical ambassador, bringing together jazz-blues players, especially of the boogie-woogie variety, from many countries and generations.

For the second year in a row, Otey will play host to three other pianists for the Boogie Woogie Blowout, which will be presented this Saturday, Oct. 28, at the Berger Performing Arts Center.

A longtime Tucson performer and DIY recording artist, Otey is presenting the event in conjunction with the Tucson Jazz Society.

At the top of the bill is elder statesman Pinetop Perkins, who is 93 years old and considered by many to be the oldest living blues pianist. Also scheduled to perform are two pianists in their 20s--rising Tucson star Arthur Migliazza, a mainstay in town since he was a fresh-faced teen, and promising Frenchman Julien Brunetaud, aka JB Boogie.

(Brunetaud, by the way, is playing several other dates around town while visiting Tucson. These include an Oct. 29 afternoon master class with the UA Jazzwerx, a "Hot Licks" barbecue concert in Bisbee the same evening, and a Nov. 1 gig at Javalina's Coffee and Friends.)

Otey first met Perkins about nine years ago backstage at the Boondocks Lounge; the occasion was an all-star blues concert that featured Perkins, Aron Burton, Lester "Mad Dog"' Davenport and Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds.

Two years ago, she filled in on the 88s for him after he was hit by a train in the middle of recording his 2004 album, Ladies Man. That's right--Perkins was hit by a train at 91 and survived, albeit with a broken arm and 45 stitches in his head.

Ladies Man, which would go on to be a nominee for Best Traditional Blues Album at the 2005 Grammy Awards, featured guest artists such as Marcia Ball, Ruth Brown, Deborah Coleman, Angela Strehli, Odetta and Madeline Peyroux.

When Perkins couldn't finish the album sessions, Otey was tapped to play his remaining parts. Perkins was quoted at the time as saying that Otey's playing reminded him of himself 70 years earlier.

Now, he's paying back the favor by headlining the Blowout.

Born Joe Willie Perkins in Belzoni, Miss., in 1913, Pinetop started playing guitar at 11 and switched to piano two years later, he said in a brief phone interview with the Tucson Weekly earlier this week.

Speaking from his home in Austin, Texas, Perkins said he was looking forward to Saturday's concert here, calling it a "very special" event and Otey a "beautiful person and a very special performer."

According to his Web site, as a young man, Perkins apprenticed under the blues musician Clarence "Pinetop" Smith, for whom he composed the signature tune "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie," one of the more popular songs of the then-nascent boogie-woogie era.

Smith recorded the composition for Vocalian Records in 1928. When Smith died in 1929, young Willie Perkins adopted the Pinetop moniker out of respect for his mentor, he said.

Throughout the 1930s and '40s, Perkins worked primarily in the juke joints and roadhouses of the Mississippi Delta. He spent five years backing up Sonny Boy Williamson, worked with B.B. King in Memphis and toured the South with Earl Hooker during the early '50s. He played in sessions for sides on legendary labels such as Chess and Sun and toured throughout the '70s with Muddy Waters' band.

As he developed his inimitable style, Perkins became one of the pioneers--along with such greats as Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons and Little Brother Montgomery--of boogie-woogie music, which with its driving rhythms helped give birth to what would become rock 'n' roll.

Of his considerable legacy, Perkins said, "I'm just an old man still trying to make a go of it, and I think I do all right, yeah. Everybody seems to like what I've been doing so I just keep on doing it."

That broken arm from Perkins' tangle with a train plagues him still, compromising the groove created on the keyboard by his famous left hand.

"I can't play bass like I used to," Perkins said. "But, I swear I used to play the bass like thunder. I just can't do it no more, but I am doing the best I can with what the Lord has left me."

Asked for his secret to a long life, Perkins said, "I pray for forgiveness all the day, hoping the Lord hears my prayers, and I just keep trying to make a dollar now and then."

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