Jazz Alley’s recent salute to the late blues legend Pinetop Perkins had an unusual genesis.
Perkins, himself, was supposed to headline the show, with featured guest and friend Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. But, sadly, the 97-year-old Perkins passed away before he could perform at the show. This sad state of affairs didn’t stop Seattle’s venerable jazz venue from going on with the show. And what a show it was.
Pinetop, by the way, was the oldest person ever to win a Grammy, sharing the “Best Traditional Blues Album” award with Smith for “Joined At The Hip,” a record released 2010.
Smith and some of Pinetop’s friends decided to carry on the tour as a tribute. At their Jazz Alley stop, the rhythm section came out first—guitarist Maurice John Vaughn, bassist Dave Kaye, and immaculately white-suited drummer Jimmi Mayes who told the audience that if they wanted jazz or rock, “You come to the wrong place tonight.”
The guitar in Vaughn’s hands sang slippery, fluid, an aquatic creature signaling its zeal, or maybe its distress, at surfacing for the first time in a long life. Then Smith himself took the stage in bright orange pants and a bright orange striped shirt that almost matched, blowing harmonica and shaking his hips in a tight-butt sass strut. Big Eyes invited a woman to “scratch my back” in one well-known lyric. A shiningly beautiful young female sitting in the front row offered to take him up on that. The outcome of this exchange is unknown.
Among those performing was famed blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin. Nearly 80 now, the famed guitar player has graced many works, including performing on most of Howlin’ Wolf’s classic electric blues albums, from 1955 until the Wolf’s death in 1976. Just for good measure he spent a short while with Muddy Waters’ the Wolf’s main competition—so nobody could accuse the guitarist of playing favorites, only screaming bent blues licks. If you’ve heard Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Keith Richards, you’ve heard Hubert Sumlin once removed. If you’ve heard anybody who ever listened to those fellows, you’ve heard him more than once removed. Hubert Sumlin was viral back when whole buildings held a single computer.
Sumlin appeared after about an hour, black suit, tie, black hat, and tubes in his nose trailing off to his oxygen machine. His manager/roadie, a 40-ish woman with glasses, wrestled the machine onto the stage behind Sumlin’s chair. She removed his hat, placed his guitar around his neck and then replaced the hat. The audience went wild for the first of several times.
Sumlin sang a little and played a little more. Occasionally, he stuck out from the mix, sometimes the mix buried him. He stung the audience with a few notes here and a few notes there, and each sting was more memorable than the last.
Other guest musicians plugged in and the mix grew thick, with the between-song amp buzz annoying. But Sumlin pulled a microphone towards his mouth and thanked everyone there for helping keep him alive. And I am sure everyone was grateful right back.
We may never see Sumlin make it back to Seattle. But we heard a great man speak with his strings in this tribute.