Joe Willie Perkins, a.k.a. "Pinetop," Reigns at Willie's

By Keith Clements

For those of your who haven't made it to Willie's 537 Lounge (formerly Jim Dandy's) here is what you will encounter: The rambling brick building is prominently situated on the southeast corner of Preston and Oak Street with a liquor store on one side and a restaurant, run by Willie, on the other. You enter through an unimposing door and proceed down a long, dark, narrow passage that is focused right on the stage. Along the corridor are posted notices regarding a strict dress code and the right to be searched for weapons, plus a great jazz poster of the bop era. At the end of the passage a huge room suddenly opens up before you. The space has all the trappings of a "classy" nightclub with black-and-white checkerboard tile floors, mirrored walls, a long bar along the back wall, plus a generous stage and dance floor. With lots of small tables on three sides of the dance floor, there is not a bad seat in the house. Even the little touches like a revolving mirrored ball, waitresses dressed in black skirts and white blouses, and multi-colored Christmas lights can be found. I've often wondered why so many blues clubs display Christmas lights. Over in the corner you will usually see Willie leaning over the bar, wearing his usual white shirt and black suspenders.

Since the KYANA Blues Society has started holding its regular meetings there, the members have fallen in love with the place, and felt it would make a great venue for blues concerts. Following the general membership meeting on Sunday, August 18, Society president Perry Aberli was able to book Pinetop Perkins, who was backed by Foree Wells and the Walnut Street Blues Band. Pinetop got first-class treatment from the Society and Roger Wolford with a room at the Seelbach. When he showed up at Willie's, an old buddy, Louisiana Lightning, who used to accompany him on guitar, was there to reminisce.

Pinetop is 78 years old but you would never know it, especially when he sits down behind the electric keyboard and starts into his vast repertoire of blues and boogies. Good musicians usually don't need to rehearse; they can just read each other and begin playing together.

The first set started off a little tentatively but it wasn't long before Pinetop had things under control and was nodding to the various band members to take their respective solos. The guitar solos were nicely traded off between Michael Wells and Dennis Williams. Greg Wells contributed some sax and keyboard accompaniment with Foree III and Donny Bridges driving the rhythm on drums and bass. Pinetop's gravelly nasal vocals complement his style of laid-back blues, like "For You My Love." His piano licks and rolls kept right up with the full contemporary sound of Foree's band.

The second set began with Foree doing an extended version of "The Thrill is Gone," which always gives me the chills. When Pinetop started playing it was like he and the band had been on the road for ten years rather than for one set. Some of the standout songs were "Can't See Eye to Eye," "Take It Easy Baby" and "Kansas City," plus a tribute to Muddy Waters with "Hoochie Coochie Man." Pinetop joined Muddy's band in 1969 after Otis Spann died suddenly and toured with him through most of the '70s. When Muddy passed away Pinetop became a part of the Legendary Blues Band, which included other alumni from Muddy's same band like Calvin Jones, Willie Smith and Jerry Portnoy. One of the great "blue" moments in my life was seeing Muddy perform with that same band lineup plus Luther Guitar Jr. and Bob Margolin late one April night in the '70s at Stages on Main Street for a one-nighter on their way down to the New Orleans Jazz Festival. Was anyone else there that night?

Pinetop has toured with some of the true legends of the blues including Robert Nighthawk and Earl Hooker plus played with Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) on the King Biscuit Time over KFFA radio in Helena during the '40s.

It was a treat to have a concert start at a reasonable hour of 8:00 p.m. and finish around 11:30 p.m. so us over-the-hillers weren't wiped out the next day. The concert was a way of saying thanks to the members of the KYANA Blues Society, and its success has made it an annual event.

(Editor's Note: Foree Wells and the Walnut Street Blues Band traveled to Memphis over the Labor Day Weekend to compete in the National Amateur Blues Talent Competition. Although they didn't win the contest, they were very well received by the audience. Later the group played outside in the park and, by audience demand, kept it up for over half an hour.)