By T.E. Mattox
t's one thing to walk into a room, shake hands, sit down, and strike
up a conversation with a legendary bluesman. It's quite another to step
through the door and find yourself surrounded by THREE of the genres
most-respected and well-loved masters. Hell, who am I kidding; it's
hallucinogenic! Throughout the 1980's and '90's a host of the
countries blues elders were touring in support of newly released material
and re-mastered retrospectives. Around 1990 Blind Pig put together
a collective of label mates, old friends and self-described co-conspirators
to do just that. This particular road show would be driven by a tight,
New York 'working class' blues band called Little Mike and the Tornadoes,
and headlined by the triple threat of Lester 'Big Daddy' Kinsey,
Willie 'Pinetop' Perkins and longtime Wolf sideman, Hubert
Perkins, Sumlin and Kinsey
at the Palomino,
North Hollywood, CA circa: 1990. Photo: T.E. Mattox
For fans it was the ultimate 'Legends' tour, turns
out the journey was just as special for the 'legends.' "I was
so glad to see this guy, Big Daddy, man." Hubert smiles while
squeezing Kinsey's shoulder. "I wanna' tell you the truth, man,
I was glad to see this guy." The look of sheer happiness on
all three of their faces confirmed the sentiment. It almost seemed secondary
that the group would repeatedly take the stage and tear off some of
the earthiest and rawest, low-down blues this side of Mississippi. I
don't think the men realized, or for that matter even cared they were
adding volumes to their storied careers. No, this raucous and joy-filled
romp through Southern California was simply giving three old friends
one more opportunity to do what they loved; and they were dead set on
having some real fun doing it. And Lord have mercy, did they ever!!
Six Degrees of Mud
Our conversation really began with how all three men
seemed to share a personal connection with Muddy. "If it hadn't
been for Muddy Waters," Big Daddy says, "I probably
wouldn't be playing blues today. He was the first blues man I heard
play blues live, from a child. I was originally born and raised in Mississippi.
Mud used to come out in the community where I grew up and do Friday
and Saturday night fish fries all around the big plantations, you know?
At that particular time I was really too young to go to these places
he chuckles. "I'd sneak off, you know? And peep in and listen.
The first time I heard Muddy Waters play I must have been nine or ten
years old. I was playing a little bit of gospel at the time, but when
I heard him play that's when I started trying to get off in the blues.
At that time he was playing acoustic and bottle-neck slide. Man, I thought
that was the most beautiful sound I ever heard. And at the time I was
very easy to learn. I'd hold that sound in my head and go back and get
my guitar, get off in a corner somewhere and play it lick-for-lick.
Pretty soon I was playing the blues myself."
Pinetop pounds out a deep blue rhythm. Photo:
Pinetop had more of a direct connection, playing and
touring with Muddy for... "Twelve long years
Didn't you replace Otis Spann? "Well, in a way I did. Otis had
quit him and I started playin' in the band with him. That was '69. 1969,
so I played with him up until '80." Some pretty good memories
from that time? (Pinetop is grinning from ear-to-ear) "Oh, I
loved playing in Muddy's band, man. I loved it 'cause he had the 'stomp-down'
blues stuff. That's why I loved it."
Turning toward Hubert, he starts to grin when I ask,
wasn't Muddy the reason you briefly parted ways with the Wolf? "Yes,
I went with Muddy. I'll tell you what; Muddy had these 41 nighters
(laughing) That's when I first got to Chicago from the South
and man, them 41-nighters that was the hardest I ever worked in my life.
I told the Wolf, 'Well, he offered me more money.' You know what I mean?
(laughing) I was working for 12 dollars and 50 cents and he
(Muddy) offered me $24 dollars. You know what I'm talking about?
Twice the money! Hey who wouldn't jump at that? But I didn't know about
the 41-nighters. Hubert said he worked with Otis Spann everyday
for two hours down in Muddy's basement to learn all the songs, "I
got so I could play 'em and I really enjoyed it. Muddy said, 'We gonna'
leave tomorrow!' (laughing) Man, I was workin' out there so hard,
man...and then I had to
I couldn't sit down. So when we got back
to Chicago, we drove all the way from Miami, Florida back to Chicago
and worked THAT NIGHT. Hey, I had them hemorrhoids, man. And so he
(Muddy) got mad with me. He say, 'Hey man you ain't feeling right.'
And I done drove all the way, you know what I'm talking about?
Then adding more 'injury to insult' Hubert continued,
"And shoot, there was a little fan sittin' up there behind the
bar at the 708 Club, so I went to turn this little old metal fan around,
Blue Blazes come out of my mouth and my eyes!"
Doing that '220 Tango' proved to be the last
straw, Hubert said. "So I called Wolf at intermission, and told
him I wanted to work for him
I was tired. Wolf told me, 'Nah, you
gotta' stay with Muddy, you LEFT me! About 5 minutes later, he
was there man, and I was back!" Hubert's eyes
soften and you still see the relief on his face even now
I stayed with him all the way through till he passed."
The Early Years
Can we go back a little, to the beginning of your musical
journeys? Big Daddy starts, "I guess by the time I was thirteen
years old there was an older fella' in my community who played guitar
and he went around doing the same thing Muddy Waters was doing but wasn't
as famous as Mud. Big Daddy told me he was a regional Mississippi
bluesman by the name of "Bishop. He had heard of me, so one
day at the community general store he say, 'Hey boy, I'm going to be
playing down in Tunica this weekend, you wanna' go with me? I say, 'Yes
Sir! (laughing) I'll go. He (Bishop) was a much older
man," and Kinsey remembers telling him, "I'll go but
you'll have to bring me a guitar, my daddy won't let me take mine. In
fact, I'm gonna' have to slip off. So that Friday afternoon, late afternoon
I went to the pasture to get the cows, you know? I carried my dog with
me and I let the cows out of the pasture and my dog would get 'em home.
I hopped in the car with him (Bishop) and we cut out! That was
on a Friday.
Big Daddy - larger than life blues. Photo:
So man, we went on down and we was playing for a
house party about 3 miles outside the town of Tunica. We got there about
9 o'clock that night and the thing started about 10:30, man."
(laughing) "They was drinking a lot of corn liquor. Home brew
in other words homemade beer and stuff, and gamblin'. I was a big boy
for my age, but I'm THIRTEEN years old!" (laughing) "And
we got to goin' and people got to dancin' and women all over me, you
know?" (laughing) "We played all night that night,
slept all day that day. Then Saturday night that same thing. Slept all
day Sunday and played. Now, I'm getting nervous now. It's the first
time I EVER stayed away from home. We left there about 11 o'clock Sunday
night; everybody had to work Monday morning.
Man, when I got home my dad, he didn't know where
the heck I was. He had been walking and driving all night tryin' to
find me. Unfortunately for me, when he (Bishop) let me out of
the car, we kinda' stayed off the main road, I stepped out the car right
in my dad's arms almost. He was standing there like he knew I was with
this man, you know? The guy he let me out and shot off. My dad, he was
so glad to see me, he told me, he said, whenever he was mad at me he
called me Lester Jr. He said, 'Lester Jr. as soon as I get over being
glad to see you, I'm going to give you a lickin' that you'll never forget.'
And ahhh, he kept his promise man, after I got home
That was the
last time my father ever gave me a lickin'. That ended my career for
a long time. I just stopped playin'. I put my guitar in the corner and
I didn't pick it up no more until after I got married and my wife started
"When my boys started growing up, I saw they
were going to be musically inclined and then I picked up the guitar
and started teaching them what I hadn't forgot. And the rest of course,
is history. And that's the beginning of my career as a bluesman. And
like I said, it ended for a few years (laughing) because of my
dad. My dad was a Pentecostal minister, he never did approve of me playing
until my first album, 'Bad Situation.' He kinda'
gave me his blessing then. He listened to it and he complimented me
on the writing of the tunes and the sound and I've been going strong
Pinetop says he too was initially influenced by a bluesman,
just not a piano playing bluesman. "You see my first
instrument was a guitar. I used to play guitar first. I heard a man
named Blind Lemon Jefferson way back there, he came to my school
that cat could play! And I said, 'man look at that guy play."
Hearing Pinetop talk about Blind Lemon, suddenly I knew
how Hubert felt when he grabbed that metal fan at the 708 Club. Electricity
shot through me
You saw Blind Lemon play? "Yeah,
he played at my school. I was at school
and I liked that. And
when I first started out I tried playing on the guitar. You know that
wire on a broom? (diddley bow) "I stretched that upside
the wall up there and get me a 'kick-flavored' bottle and started playing
that thing before I started playing the guitar."
Big Daddy chimes in. "I built one of those things
myself. One string on the wall
with two staples upside the wall,
one way up high and one down low. Then I took bottles
and tightened it. Broke the neck off a coke bottle to make a slide,
Pinetop nods his head, "Yeah and you had the
whole house for a bass sound. Comin' out of the doors, windows."
Big Daddy adds, "I done that before I got my
Pinetop laughs, "Me too. Must have been 5 or
6 years old."
Pinetop moved from guitar to piano due to necessity.
An unhappy woman with a knife 'encouraged him' to switch instruments.
Pinetop points to his arm, "a bad lady in Arkansas hit me in
that muscle, you see?" Turns out she cut his arm and severed
tendons to the point he couldn't close his hand normally, "I
can pound down, but I can't squeeze down. That's what left me with piano,
So basically you're saying a woman is responsible for
your blues? "Sure enough! Every once in a while, I still pick
up a guitar and play a note or two on it. Can't do it long, though."
Who influenced you on piano? "Well I tell you,
I liked the way Memphis Slim played. I learned a bunch of his stuff;
I really loved the way he played." But the biggest influence
for Pinetop was his namesake, 'Pinetop' Smith. "He was my idol,
you know?" The moniker stuck after Perkins recut Smith's classic
'Pinetop's Boogie,' "I think it was 1950 and everybody's been
calling me 'Pinetop' ever since."
Hubert, you had an older brother who played, was he
an influence? "He didn't show me ANYTHING! I tried to get him
to learn me man, but he wouldn't show me ANYTHING. But I kept a-watchin'
him though and I wanted to play so badly. Man, my mother worked so hard
and only made 8 dollars a week and she spent a whole $8 on me to get
a guitar. A whole weeks salary, man. Ohhh
a first guitar and I
learned man, I learned. It didn't take me long either, I was playing,
boy. I heard all those old guys, man. Wolf, Charlie Patton and all them
guys, man. I didn't get a chance to see him (Patton) but I had
some old warped records. (He wobbles his hand) E-I-E-I-E-I!!
(he laughs) It was warped so bad. Had one of the first old phonographs
you had to wind it up, man."
"Spann had this pint of 'Old Granddad,'
and the cops stopped us. I said, 'Hey man, we're ALL going to
jail tonight. I can see it now.'"
You were just a kid when you first met Howlin' Wolf,
tell us about that.
"He was a great guy. I used to go see him at
least when I first met him, he was playin' this place in Arkansas. I
was too young to get in the place, you know? I was a little kid. So
I see these cement blocks near the club, you know? Sit on the cement
blocks and where the bandstand was I was in one part and he's in one
part and they also had the band, so the bandstand was setting back in
the back. I know where it was and they throw'd me out two or three times.
There was a line of women and I crawled up between their legs and I
got in there." He was soon discovered, "'Looky here,
you can't be in here, you're too young.' So finally they got tired of
throwing me out (he's laughing) so I finally got the chance to
Hubert leans into it. Photo:
I tell you what happened
one night I had been
to see this guy (Wolf) three or four times. On weekends, because
they only had music, blues on the weekends, like Friday or Saturday
Sunday. So I wanted to see this guy so bad but they kept a-throwing
me out of the joint. So I got me some Coca-Cola crates, you know and
stacked 'em up near a little window up there up over the bandstand.
Man, somebody yanked them Coca-Cola crates out from underneath me and
over on my head I went, man. And he (Wolf) say, 'Hey,
let him stay.' The Wolf! He say 'Let him stay!' So he set me down between
Willie Johnson and Matt Murphy and who else, ahhh, the OLD guys. "Hey,
he let me stay! 'Yeah, get him a chair, let him stay. This boy gonna'
be a good musician one of these days
I stayed and he finally took me home that night.
And I said, thank you very much. So he take me home to mama, man. She
wanted to get a hold of me, man
BAD, bad. He (Wolf) said,
'Please don't whip that boy. He likes me, he likes the music, he's gonna'
be a good musician.'
Sure enough I finally end up working with the guy
25 years. I was with the guy longer than anybody was. So he was just
like a father to me. Yes, it got to be that way. He was great and a
great guy to work for.
Hubert's life-long dream had come true. "I been
wanting to do this thing a LONG time, man. In the sanctified church,
that's when I made my first, mistake (laughing)
my mother and all my family are sanctified, man. And hey I want to
get up there with the other musicians, man. There were musicians in
the church who played some pretty good stuff man and I got up there
man, and messed around and thought about Muddy Waters and Wolf, man.
(laughing) Momma know'd I was
" (laughing) Mothers
The Blues Highway with Family and Friends
Big Daddy says the Kinsey Report is all about family.
"I started Donald playing and he took it and ran with it."
(Donald toured with Albert King, Bob Marley and appeared regularly on
Roy Buchanan recordings) "My oldest boy (Ralph) he got
started on drums about 8 years old. When the oldest boy was about 10
and Donald was 9, we was giggin' as a family."
Pinetop also had a family connection in music. "I
played four years with Sonny Boy Williamson before I played with Muddy,"
he tells me and adds, "My first wife was his first cousin."
Sonny Boy had quite the reputation; did you always get along? "We'd
get into sometimes, he'd get back there in the crap room, you know?
He'd have all the money and say, 'I'll get you all next time."
(laughing) "Sonny Boy was so fast," Pinetop remembers
"he'd get out of money and he'd start to preach. He would preach
to get him some money, man. Take his harp man, and amplifier and get
out on the street and put his hat on the street and have a hat full
of money, man. Sonny Boy was something else."
I mention that every blues album I seem to pick up these
days has your name on it; James Cotton, Luther Tucker, Koko Taylor
do you sleep? Pinetop laughs and Big Daddy interjects, "He's
also on MY album, 'Bad Situation.' Pinetop smiles and says, "That's
Looking back at Big Daddy, you must be very proud of
your sons. "Oh Yeah! I am
I am. They worked with me all
their life. We started headlining them as a result of 'Edge of the City'
Pinetop adds, "He's got some beautiful boys,
Hubert, you've played with some pretty talented musicians,
tell us about James Cotton? "James Cotton? We grew up together!
Cotton was down there in this little old town and we got together and
he was the first guy I played with. He had a guitar player by the name
of Pat Hare. He had a little band and we played all over Arkansas, man
and Mississippi and Wolf heard about me with Cotton. And I didn't know
the man was in the house
that would have scared me anyway; you
know what I'm talking about? So when I left Cotton, I went with the
Wolf. Sure did."
You've worked with some amazing harp players
worked with George 'Harmonica" Smith a couple of weeks before I
got to Chicago to play with Wolf. George Smith came by and said, 'Hey
man you wanna' play, you got two weeks before you got to work.' Man,
I got there to play and it's the first time I seen Little
Walter and all these guys, man. And they scared the devil outta'
me, man. (laughing) Eddie Boyd and all these guys, man. It was
GREAT! I played with Charlie
Musselwhite a couple times in Chicago when he came through. And
I wasn't doing anything and he wanted me to work with him a couple of
One more fan of the legendary Hubert Sumlin
I heard you got in some trouble once, back in your youth
little run-in with the law
what happened? (Hubert puts on his best
I'm innocent face, but can't hold it very long) "I was with
Muddy. (laughing) We was down in Tampa, Florida and see at that
time you could buy guns or anything just over the bar
counter. I had a little old .25, I bought. It was a cute little thing.
Everybody else bought'em, so why not? We ALL had guns. On the way back
in the suburbs in Chicago, Spann had this pint of 'Old Granddad, you
know? Hadn't been opened, so he was gonna' pass me the bottle over the
seat. And the cops stopped us, man. I said, 'Hey man, we're ALL going
to jail tonight. I can see it now.' And sure enough man, he searched
me 3 times, and I had a little trench coat on, you know? It had a little
pocket right here, (he points to the inside of his jacket) and
that's where my gun was. Twice he didn't find it. But I'm trying to
talk for Otis Spann and he said 'wait a minute you must be the LEADER!'
(laughing) He went back and searched me, AGAIN! And he found
the gun. Oh Boy
he called me 'Baby-Faced Nelson,' man. (laughing)
But after they checked everything out, the guns and
things and found out they hadn't been used or nothin' and hadn't killed
anybody and found out where we bought'em at. They let us go. But, we
still had to go to court, you know what I mean? So we go to court, we
didn't get the guns back, but they put me on probation for 4 four years."
You ever carry a gun since? "Never!"
Pinetop, you mentioned Sonny Boy being fast and loose,
who do you think was THE wildest? Without hesitation Perkins says, "Little
Walter! He was WILD, man. He'd get into it. He'd get into fights and
couldn't win 'em." (laughing) "They'd beat him up,
Big Daddy adds, "The last fight he was into
he just didn't heal up from that one."
Pinetop is shaking his head in agreement. "He
didn't care how big they was, he'd jump into it and know he couldn't
win. He'd go and jump on you. He's Creole
them folks was kinda'
Big Daddy seemed to think Walter was "nervous"
and probably suffered from "anxiety. So many bluesmen don't
have the ability to control
or have any control over themselves.
They get mesmerized and they take it out on the world. They don't know
the reason why they can't succeed, or be successful and a lot of them
just get angry with the world."
Hubert, I can only imagine some of the wild clubs and
bars you've played in over the years, any stand out? "We played
man. I tell you there was one guy... we played in a
place called 'Paradise Beach.' A place set in Mobile Bay, there
were two ways in and out of that place
both ends. You couldn't
go out, but the front. We had just made 'Evil,' we'd just recorded 'Evil'
with the Wolf, and that house was FULL of people, man. A guy was standing
right in front of me. I heard something like, 'pow, pow, pow, pow'
I thought it was just fire crackers, you know? Really. That place was
FULL of folk's man. This guy leaned back and pushed forward and every
time I pushed him
'He's DEAD!' He's dead, this guy done lighted
him up, man. The first guy I ever seen
man. I had a Gibson guitar,
I'll never forget it. The guitar went that way, the neck went THAT way
and I went THIS way, man! This woman had a kitchen, and her bedroom
was on this side
Man, I went through that kitchen and crawled
up under that bed. This is the wrong place, so the cops had to get us
we didn't get a chance to play. When the Wolf went
'EVIL' that's when them shots rang out
First time I ever seen that, man."
Hubert and Big Daddy tearing it up
All three men had travelled the world playing the blues
for literally, hundreds of thousands of fans. And when the blues explosion
erupted in Europe during the 1960's, Hubert remembered fondly touring
with friends Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon.
"Yeah, we were there for three weeks. They were
runnin' us around like cattle. We were doing 3 months of playing in
3 weeks. People brought us from Amsterdam and man, we played so many
But, I enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it."
Sumlin would become an influence to countless European
musicians and aspiring blues players. From Clapton and Page to Mick
and Keith, Hubert's guitar even impacted a young American who just happened
to be living in England at the time.
"Hendrix... Oh boy, I liked him VERY MUCH! We
was very good friends, man. We (Howlin' Wolf) played Liverpool,
England, you know? The Beatles home. Looking at this guy comin'
in there and straight to the bandstand and Wolf's eyes got THAT big,
man. He thought this guy was crazy
Wolf know'd this guy was a
musician though, you know? He know'd he was a musician, then he come
up on the bandstand and Wolf let him play, man. He (Wolf) asked
him, 'you gotta' be a musician, man.'" (laughing) Hendrix
responded, "'yes, can I play your guitar?' He started playin' with
his teeth, man. And Wolf wanted to hire the guy, man! But he
(Hendrix) already had his thing; you know what I'm talking about?
And he was just getting started. But he was a great guy, man."
Speaking of great guys, I would be totally remiss if
we didn't talk a little about the driving force and back-beat of this
travelling road show; Little Mike and the Tornadoes. Little
Mike Markowitz formed the original Tornadoes in New York back in 1978.
With a well-earned reputation for straight ahead blues, the band earned
the respect of a number of blues greats, not to mention a legion of
fans. The Tornadoes ended up on speed dial every time a blues musician
came through the Big Apple with a need to add some 'torque' to their
performance. From Big Walter Horton and Otis Rush to Jimmy Rogers and
Big Mama Thornton, Little Mike and the Tornadoes have backed, toured
or recorded with some of the most prominent blues players of the last
four decades. The good news; Little Mike and the Tornadoes continue
to perform today. In fact, they have a European tour scheduled this
summer and can be seen and heard regularly throughout the Southeastern
U.S. Most currently, in support of their latest offering; 'Forgive
Me' out now on ElRob Records.
As a close friend of all three bluesmen, I really wanted
Little Mike's perspective on this tour and he told me he too, shared
a connection with Muddy Waters. "His was the sound that hit
me the hardest. I used to go and see Muddy anytime he was within 150
miles of New York." he said. "That very direct, real blues
with no rock and roll
featuring the worlds best harmonica players.
He is easily the biggest influence on the band and my playing."
Since you mentioned harmonica players, tell me a little
about your friend, Paul Butterfield? "I had a regular gig in
NYC in the Village and he used to live there. He would pop in and play
and we became friends. He was very cool. When I was calling myself a
blues purist he said he was a 'music purist.' That changed my attitude
a little." Little Mike then reminded me, "Pinetop used
to play big band jazz before he met Sonny Boy."
What are your favorite memories of working with Pinetop,
Hubert and Big Daddy? "How warm and genuine they were. The music
was great. It was a chance to work and learn along side my heroes. We
did well over 100, maybe 200 shows together, but when we went to Italy
in 1989 (maybe 90), it was the closest I ever felt to being a star.
They loved us. Jimmy Rogers too, was on a lot of shows with us."
Pinetop, Little Mike, Hubert Sumlin & Jimmy
Rogers. Photo courtesy of Little Mike
I know you pulled double-duty producing and playing
on a few of their albums? "Yes. 'After Hours,' 'Heaven' and
'Heart and Soul' which feature James Cotton, all on Blind Pig."
The guys returned the favor by playing on the Tornadoes album, 'Heart
Attack.' Was the studio any different than a 'live' gig? "It
was always fun to play and work with them, but the studio is always
a little more stressful because you have to be so deliberate. We didn't
just play it like a gig. Because of all the factors that can affect
a recording, you have to be more business like."
Living on the road with those guys must have been a
riot? "Of course the downtime and conversations in hotels, restaurants,
dressing rooms, was always full of heart warming and funny moments.
We laughed a lot in those times. He (Pinetop) used to whip my
ass in Pinochle, every time! I would get so mad, I would throw
the cards down
and he would laugh and laugh. Many of the best
stories have to stay on the road."
Little Mike being 'schooled' in the finer points
of 'Pinochle.' Photos: courtesy of Little Mike
We've lost all of them now, but the music remains. It's
got to put a smile on your face when you listen back to some of those
recordings? "It does; and it makes me miss them too. I wish
I would have delayed the Tornadoes solo career at times, but at the
time we had record offers in place, if we went independent. It was time
for me to make my mark. But I wish I could have done more with them,
and still stayed on my own. But I did visit Pine, Hubert, and Jimmy
a lot through the years."
I think I speak for blues fans everywhere when I say; the feeling of
loss is mutual. The one true saving grace is the music that each of
them left us. Check out Big Daddy Kinsey and the Kinsey Report's, 'Bad
Situation' or the disc, 'Edge of the City.' For Hubert start
with 'About Them Shoes' from 2003 or maybe 'Blues Anytime!'
from 1994 or anything, seriously anything from Howlin' Wolf
Pinetop's 'After Hours' is always a good listen and about every
blues album you've ever owned, because the guy is probably on it.
And finally a huge Thank You to Little Mike.
Take a listen to 'Heart Attack,' or my fave, 'Payday'
or their most current project, 'Forgive Me.' Even better, get
out and see Little Mike and the Tornadoes 'live.' You'll thank me later.
Blues and Lives Well-Lived; JoeWillie
"Pinetop" Perkins; Ode
to Little Walter; Charlie
"Mr. Cleanhead" Vinson; Blues