Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Merry Christmas, Pretty Baby

How might music history be different if Joe Willie "Pinetop" Perkins wasn't such a nice guy? Born in Belzoni, Ms. in 1913, the affable piano man got his start playing the keyboards for Robert Nighthawk's KFFA radio show in 1943. Then a short time later Sonny Boy Williamson offered Pinetop more money to play with him on the King Biscuit Flower Hour. Pinetop's boogie woogie piano style was in high demand then and would be for many decades to come.

When Otis Spann left Muddy Waters in 1969 to go out on his own, Muddy didn't have to look long for a replacement, he wanted the man with the old-school Delta style, Pinetop Perkins. Pinetop contributed to Muddy's sound for the next ten years.

But it was back at a dance in Moorehead in the 40's when Pinetop was flying high as Sonny Boy's boogie woogie right hand man that a single act of generosity perhaps turned out to be his greatest contribution to music. As Robert Palmer tells it in his essential blues history "Deep Blues" Pinetop befriended a precocious kid from Clarksdale who idolized the piano star and wanted to learn to how to play that boogie woogie piano. The kid was Ike Turner.

Pinetop didn't have to take the time to give some kid free music lessons, but he did. And they took. Ike of course went on to become quite a good musician and while still a teenager wrote and recorded in 1951 what is largely regarded as the first rock and roll song "Rocket 88" with his saxophone player Jackie Brenston on lead vocals at Sun Studio with Sam Phillips. Phillips leased the song to Chess Records in Chicago, it hit number one and Phillips used the money to start his own record label, Sun Records.

Music fans the world over would be indebted for years to come.

Most remember Ike today because he went on to have a successful career with another lead singer, Anna Mae Bullock, whom he married and gave the stage name Tina Turner.

At 95, Pinetop still has that boogie woogie going on. He records and tours and is now considered an elder statesman of the blues. Ike died a year ago this month.

Both men recorded the classic 1947 Charles Brown song "Merry Christmas Baby."

Turner's 1964 arrangement is soulful and intense, as you might expect. Perkins' version from just a few years ago is laid back and cool, just like the man. Both draw from a piano style learned years before in the Mississippi Delta.

They take different stylistic paths, but both the teacher and the student eventually arrive at the same location, just like they did back in Moorehead in the early 40's. Merry Christmas, baby.

(Click to hear Pinetop Perkins' Merry Christmas Baby)

(Click to hear Ike & Tina Turner's Merry Christmas Baby)

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