Pinetop Perkins' Legacy Continues: Meet Tomorrow's Blues Greats
By Candice Ludlow
Clarksdale, MS – Pinetop Perkins was a world-renowned Blues piano player. For a longtime, he played with Muddy Waters. Later he started a successful solo career, bringing in several Grammys and Blues Music Awards. Pinetop died in March at 97. But a couple of years ago, Pat Morgan, who was Pinetop's manager, said he had no heirs and he wanted to share his success, so the Boogie Woogie master decided to start the Pinetop Perkins Youth Workshops at the Hopson Plantation. Candice Ludlow headed down Highway 61 to where it crosses 49 near Clarksdale, Mississippi to meet tomorrow's blues greats.
There's a Mississippi Blues Trail Marker in front of the Hopson Plantation that says Pinetop Perkins used to drive a tractor here in the 1940s. There are several buildings on the plantation, a commissary, lots of little shacks and old automobiles and trucks. The Hopson Plantation is now home to the Shack-Up Inn, and is just a couple miles from downtown Clarksdale.
The piano workshop is in the big house in the back. There are five students ranging from 11 to adult.
Each student sits at his or her keyboard and watches and listens intently as their teachers Erwin Helfer, a Chicago piano man, and Clay Swafford, who's been known to channel Pinetop, instruct them. They're getting ready for their evening performance at Ground Zero.
Jack Gaffney is 13 and from Boulder, Colorado. He's wearing a tee-shirt, shorts, flip flops and the Ray Ban shades his dad gave him before the trip. He's got the look.
I started playing blues piano about a year ago. I've been playing piano for a longtime but it was mostly rock and roll. What made you start liking this kind of music? I went to an Otis Taylor Blues jam in my hometown and I really liked it.
Like Gaffney, Wyly Bigger is about to turn 14. He's from Marion, Arkansas. Wyly says he started playing piano when he was three and a half.
"My sister got a toy piano for her birthday one year and I just began picking out songs like Twinkle Little Star on it," Wyly explains. "So my parents put me in lessons. And I liked it so I kept playing."
But this isn't Wyly's first time.
"Last year, we had Eden Brent and Ann Rabson teaching. It was all piano last year and no guitar. But I really enjoyed working with both of them. They taught us several riffs and bass lines to play. They taught you how to improvise and make your own blues songs," Wyly says.
After Pinetop died, donations started pouring into the Pinetop Perkins Foundation. That money, plus a grant from Morgan Freeman's Rock River Foundation, created more space for up and coming blues players. So this year, they were able to give seven scholarships, and not only from Mississippi, but from as far away as Colorado.
The guitar workshop is taking place in the commissary, which is just a short walk across the grass in between wood and tin-roofed shacks. Bob Margolin, who also played with Muddy Waters, is teaching the young masters.
"Think about your own blues inside," Margolin says to Bailey. "What makes you so sad? And don't just get the words out there. Do what you did when you got a little desperate."
Bailey cries, " .oh, you done me wrong babe, you're going to be sorry one day." .
That's Wyly's 11-year-old sister, Bailey.
"I started out with my brother's old guitar, he used to take guitar lessons, but then it wasn't his thing. So he let me use his guitar because ever since I was a kid, I've been asking my mom, I've been saying, let me play guitar, put me in guitar lessons, and she says, wait till your hands get bigger," Bailey explains. "And finally two years ago, when I was nine, she said, Okay, your hands are bigger, so she put me in.'"
Some of these kids are already playing professionally.
"My name is Christone Ingram, but a lot of blues people know me by the name of Kingfish."
Kingfish plays around Clarksdale in the All Night Long Blues Band and the Delta Blues Museum Band. His work is featured on the museum's new release, From Clarksdale to Kansas City."
Kingfish picked up the guitar at three for a while, and then again when he was nine. He's now 12.
"I kinda like do the all-around-kind a thing. I started on drums and I moved to bass and I'm on guitar. I'm sticking with guitar." Kingfish continues, "I play a little bit of pop, rock, I do a lot of gospel and I do a lot of blues. That's it. And a little bit of jazz."
The culminating experience of the two-day intensive for these young blues players is a jam session at the Ground Zero Blues Club. But for these young souls, the thrill is just beginning.