Legendary piano player Joe Willie "Pinetop" Perkins , who gave Austin a walking, talking monument to the blues when he moved here in 2003, died from cardiac arrest Monday at his home in North Austin. The oldest-ever Grammy winner, Perkins was 97 when he accepted the award for best traditional blues album last month .
When the Rolling Stones played Austin for the first time in October 2006 at Zilker Park, the sight they most wanted to see was Perkins, Muddy Waters' longtime piano player, backstage at their show.
Even in failing health, Perkins went to Antone's nightclub three or four times a week to sell CDs and DVDs and chat with fans. He was often called onstage to jam, including Saturday at South by Southwest, when he played piano for fellow Mississippi native Bobby Rush .
"He was a member of our family, not just the Antone's family, but the Austin family," said Susan Antone, who is planning a memorial at the club.
An original Mississippi Delta bluesman, Perkins grew up with musical folk heroes such as Robert Johnson and Son House and played on Sonny Boy Williamson 's essential "King Biscuit Time" radio program in the 1940s, He received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2005.
That recognition, plus the comfort he felt in his new hometown of Austin, ended a four-year retirement. "As soon as we got back from that trip to L.A.," his full-time caregiver Barry Nowlin told the American-Statesman last year , "he told me, 'I want you to get my manager on the phone.' He was ready to perform again."
Perkins, who got his nickname from his 1953 cover of Clarence Smith's "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie," was "the classic Chicago blues piano player," said blues musician Marcia Ball .
Clifford Antone, then 26, first booked the Waters band with Perkins to play the original Antone's location on East Sixth Street in the mid-'70s. "Clifford came out and introduced himself, and the band said, 'Where's your dad?,'" Susan Antone said.
Clifford Antone was instrumental in persuading Perkins to move to Austin from La Porte , Ind., in late 2003. At the time Perkins, a smoker from age 9, was in bad shape physically and financially. An associate had fleeced the old man of all his money, about $200,000, said manager Pat Morgan .
Perkins was revitalized by the move to Austin, Nowlin said, but so were many local musicians, who were amazed to see the blues giant sitting in at honky-tonks as well as blues joints.
"For me, Austin's been a place where we all came because there's a pure love of music u2026 with no discrimination of styles," Ball said last year. "To see Pinetop at the Broken Spoke just tied together so much of what Austin's about musically."
Perkins and Clifford Antone were almost inseparable, and when Antone died of a heart attack in 2006, "Pine was devastated," Susan Antone said.
But others, including cab drivers and club personnel, watched out for Perkins. "People in Austin treasure Pinetop and take care of him," Morgan said last year .
Although best known as the piano player who replaced the great Otis Spann in the Waters band in 1969, rock historians also place Perkins at the birth of rock 'n' roll. Perkins taught Ike Turner how to play percussive piano, setting the rhythm with his left hand, while aping horn lines with his right hand. Turner puts those lessons to use on 1951's "Rocket 88," which Memphis producer Sam Phillips called the first rock 'n' roll record.
Perkins never carried himself as a blues legend, however. "He loves everybody the same, whether it's the president of the United States or the guy on Sixth Street who just asked him for spare change," Nowlin said.
Perkins' goal was to make it to 100. He almost did.
Funeral arrangements are pending.