Featured Interview – Merle Perkins

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My name is Merle Perkins and I was born in 1945 in Kansas City, Kansas and my mother was a singer like Sarah Vaughan, and so maybe I got some of that musical background from her. She used to make her own clothes and she sang in a band, and when I was small and a band came by I was stomping my feet when the drums came by, but she never knew that I liked drums when I was little. We were living in St. Louis, Missouri in 1956 as my mother met a boyfriend and he got a job in St. Louis, so we moved there. When I was there, there was a school yard called Vashon High School and I used to see this drum corps marching by my house and they would go over there and practice. So this one drum corps that I was in, in 1963, was at first called Pleasant Green, which is a church drum corps which is a smaller drum corps, and when I saw The Spirit Of Louis, which is a senior corps, they were a big corps and I thought that I wanted to play with those cats. So what happened, I had a process hair do and I went to their practice and they told me that I had to cut my hair off. Drum corps back then were like the military, so I cut it all off and I came back and the guy thought I was serious about being in his drum corps, so that’s where my drumming came from. If I hadn’t been in the drum corps, I probably would never have been a drummer today.

I played with The Spirit Of St. Louis for one year and we did competitions with our all black American drum corps and I thought we were the only African American drum corps, because back in the sixties there were all white drum corps everywhere and they had been around for decades. They originally came from Europe and the first drum corps they had in America was in the 1800s in Connecticut. The USA made it bigger and now they are all over the world. I did a history and studied the drum corps, as I wanted to know the background of drum corps. I found out we were not the only African American drum corp; there was another one out of Newark, New Jersey called The Washington Carver Gay Blades but they folded up. Most, if not all, of the guys in The Sprit Of St Louis have died, I’m the only one alive.

I moved to Chicago in 1964 and I wasn’t even playing drums. What happened was, a friend of mine influenced me to come here and I moved here and got a job and my mother was running a cleaners in St. Louis. I have no sisters or brothers, I was with my mother most of my life she was both mother and father. I never knew my dad, they broke up when I was three months old. My father was a Native American, a full blooded Cherokee Indian. I did try to get information on him in 1979 via my uncle, so I drove to St. Louis and went to my uncle’s house but they didn’t know anything about me and they didn’t help. I went and got my mother and brought her here to Chicago and one day a friend of mine named Joe Cato, he was a singer and I used to follow him around and there was a place on 47th and State Street called The Owls Lounge. I used to go behind the stage and watch him sing and I would take my drum sticks and beat on a chair so he told me I had good hands and I took his advice and I went to 43rd Street where they had a pawn shop and bought this little cheap drum set, paid $124. I was working for Hertz Rent a car and I had a jar full of coins and I got that set.

When I came out of the store I met this drummer named Leonard Mayfield who was coming out and this is how it all got started. He was playing a gig and I went to the gig to see him and he was playing in a jazz group and he just blew me away, he played like a big band drummer. So I followed him around and then I met some of the blues musicians by going to the different clubs. When the Checkerboard was on 43rd, Pepper’s Lounge was right on the corner, so I went in and sat in on the drums and they were playing the blues but I was playing the wrong beat and I was just learning how to play blues so I was taken off the stand and that embarrassed me. What they didn’t know is that I could read music and one day I was watching TV and Billy Cobham was on and he is my idol and I had never seen a black drummer with so many drums and he was like a machine. merle perkins photo 2

It came to my thought that I would fix the folks who had been negative towards my drumming and in 1970 I had a drum set and I went and bought more drums and I went to French drum school to learn how to read the whole set of drums. Then I went in the wood shed and started practicing on the double bass drum, as nobody was doing that, so I was the first drummer in the Chicago blues to play double bass drum. When I came out of the woodshed, people started watching me. This was 1969 and 1970 and the first guy I played with was Joe Ferguson and the first out of town gig we had was at Grand Rapids, Michigan and after we finished the set someone broke into the van and stole everything and we were there for four days wearing the same clothes. So that was my first experience of being on the road.

I then met Johnny Dollar and he was a great singer and guitar player and he used to play at Checkmate on 55th street. I would go in his backyard and take my drum set and he would help me in playing music, and then another who helped me was Buddy Scott. I went to his house one time and he had a little reel to reel tape and he is the one that showed me how to play a shuffle. He died of cancer and the Scott brothers have a copy of that and I’ve been asking them for a copy of it. So I started playing those shuffles and I started playing and hanging out at the Checkerboard and in 1971 I had my first professional gig with Freddie King and we went out on the road to places like Ohio and Pittsburgh and that was an honor for me as Freddie King was way ahead of his time and we were opening the show for Leon Russell on all of those gigs. I was standing in for Freddie’s drummer as his drummer was sick. After that I was at the Checkerboard sitting in on the drums and Buddy Guy was there and he asked me if I would work with him, and that’s when he and Junior Wells was playing together, so I played with them for about a year but I fell out with Junior and that’s when I quit. In 1979 there was a guy called Reggie Soul and we went to Amarillo, Texas and his band was called Grand Express and Zora Young was singing with us and I’ve got a picture of them. We worked in the Kansas area for a while as well and then I came back to Chicago in 1980 and I heard that Albert King was looking for a drummer. Now when I was fifteen years old I lived in St. Louis and I used to shoot pool with Albert and he played at a club across the street, so when I heard he was looking for a drummer I went to the rehearsals and he remembered me and so I started playing drums for Albert, but I had also been offered a gig with Lonnie Brooks too. I had always wanted to play with Albert King because his playing was phenomenal, so I played with Albert and we played Tipitinas and I recorded the show, so I have his shows on my CDs live and then we played in Memphis. He paid $300 a week and he took out income tax and I had to share a room with another guy and you had to pay for your own room with that $300 and so I told the bass player who was the leader of the band that they needed to get another drummer, as I couldn’t stay out there for that money, so I took my stuff and left when we were in Memphis. Now Dion Payton was playing second guitar, so when I quit my late mother took me back to Chicago and that’s when I called Lonnie Brooks and I got the gig with him. I recorded an album with him on Alligator, called Turn On The Night. I played with Lonnie for two years. When we used to rehearse, Wayne Baker Brooks and Ronnie Baker Brooks they were little boys and they used to watch us rehearse and I never thought that those young cats would turn out to be the bad guitar players that they are today and they are very respectful young men, so Lonnie did a very good job in raising them.

After I left Lonnie, that’s when I worked with James Cotton and, when I was with James, Michael Coleman was the leader of the band and it was Michael who got me in the band. James Cotton played like boogie blues and real fast. He had Kennard Johnson with him for fourteen years and he was a shuffle drummer like a 45 sped up to a 78, and it took me a while to play a fast shuffle like that. I was trying all different types of drum sticks and then I would try and cheat a little bit on the shuffles, but Michael told me I had to keep that shuffle going. We played the Montreux Jazz festival, I have recordings of that. I played with James for about a year and after that I went with Magic Slim And The Teardrops and we did that Coors Beer commercial which we did at B.L.U.E.S. club. merle perkins photo 3

This was in 1985 and that is on my Facebook page. Nate Applewhite played with Slim and he never played a shuffle, he played the same beat and he was with Slim for something like eleven years. So they never had a drummer that played shuffle so I told Slim I was leaving, he was sad about that. I was with Magic Slim for about a year and then I went with Big Twist And The Mellow Fellows. I auditioned for them and they picked me and I gave Slim two weeks notice. The Mellow Fellows were a very popular horn group and we traveled everywhere. Pete Special was the leader of the band and Sid Wingfield was the tall keyboard player. No matter if you played a festival or a club all they would pay me was $60. I never recorded with Big Twist but I have live videos that are on my Facebook and just about everyone I have played with I have recorded, because I wanted to hear what I sounded like.

I also played with Lefty Dizz and we did a show in Europe called Chicago Blues Giants and there was Melvin Taylor, Harlan Terson, Ken Saydak, Lefty Dizz and Lonnie Brooks and we toured all over. I did an album in Paris, France with Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson that had Eddie Shaw, Ken Saydak and Harlan Terson, and that’s a good sounding album which came out on Isabel Records and now it’s on Evidence. Also I recorded an album in 1980 with Buddy Guy which is called Breaking Out on JSP Records and it had the late Nick Charles on bass, the late Phil Guy on guitar and Doug McDonald.

Another guy I played with was Buster Benton and I recorded with him, that came out on Ron Records and we did that at Paul Serrano studios in the seventies. It has Jimmy Johnson and Lafayette Leake on it and Cornelius Boyson, who we called Mule, was on there; he was the bass player but they didn’t put his name on there and he was a bad bass player but he drank a lot. When we were playing with Lonnie Brooks he fell asleep on the stage. I have a 45 here and I am on one side of it and it’s called ‘Mojo’ and the drummer Dino Alvarez is on the other side. We did that down in a studio in a basement and I think we did this somewhere in the 70’s.

After Big Twist And The Mellow Fellows I started playing with Michael Coleman And The Backbreakers for a while and then I played with Son Seals in 1989. He got shot by his woman and Son used to wait until you had played all the gigs and he would pay you when you got back to Chicago. I got a chance to go to Turkey with him and when there I phoned my mother, and that call cost me $500 and I didn’t have no money and I asked him for all my money he owed me and eventually he overpaid me. After Son Seals I also had my own band from 1990 to 1997 called Merle Perkins And The Perkolators and I had Pistol Pete in the band and Herman Applewhite on bass and we used to travel in a big motor home as I wanted my band to travel in comfort.

I then played with Eddy Clearwater and I played with him for eleven years from 1999 to 2010 on a regular basis. We played on Channel 7 news and Channel 32 and Channel 9. I never recorded with him although he did three CDs when I was in his band but he would get a band that was already established like the Duke Robillard band and then he used Los Straightjackets and they used to wear those masks on their faces. After that, Ronnie Baker Brooks produced it called West Side Strut which Bruce Iglauer picked up and put it out on his Alligator Records. I did a DVD with Eddy which we did in Poland. I hadn’t seen Eddy for some time so I decided to go see him at his birthday party at Space, but I didn’t realize he was failing. He couldn’t walk that good and they had to help him on stage so when he came back off the stage I talked to him and the next thing I knew he had passed away and I went to his funeral which was a Jewish funeral.

I have my own CDs, one of which is Merle Perkins The Perkolator and another is Through The Years which is a CD that features me playing with some of the artists I have mentioned and others, and then there is The Brazilian Blues Bash album which was recorded at the Delmark studios by these Brazilian musicians that features me on drums. There are some more CDs coming out and one will be Chicago Blues Hall Of Fame The Legendary Merle Perkins Live Drums and everything is live but everybody on that CD has died.merle perkins photo 4

After I let my band go in 1997 I went to Eddy and after Eddy I started freelancing and I would go with anyone that paid me for the gig. The Brazilian Blues Bash in 2013, they flew me to Brazil as a special guest artist, so I was a star over there and every place we played they gave me a drum solo. They videotaped some of the shows. There is a girl named Maria from Argentina and she is a great guitar player and singer and she is going to try and get me into Argentina some time in the future.

Some of the artists I have recorded with are Eddy Clearwater, Eddie Shaw and Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson on their Movin’ And Groovin’ Man album which we recorded in Paris and which is on Isabel. Michael Coleman on Delmark Records Do Your Thing and Shake Your Booty on Wolf Records. I was on the Blue Chicago label that had different artists on it Clark Street Ramblers. Rich Kirk, he played with John Lee Hooker until he died, and me and him used to play together years ago and we recorded two songs in the studio with Paul Serrano the producer. Rich took the masters to California and put Charlie Musselwhite ‘Showers Of Rain’ and Billy Boy Arnold ‘I Wish You Would’ on there, so both of them songs I am playing on. It’s called Rich Kirk Augusta Boulevard Blues. I recorded with Barrelhouse Chuck and he took that off of Willie Kent And The Gents and it’s called ‘Mama Told Me’ on his 25 Years Of Chicago Blues album.

I’m on two other CDs recorded at a club in Bloomington, Indiana with Michael Coleman. I have two albums, one with Abbe Locke, the sax player, and the other was with Willie Kent on his Mama Told Me, which was on Big Boy Records which we recorded on Michigan Avenue and I’m playing on the whole album, but they didn’t put my name on it. They listed Barrelhouse Chuck, Johnny B. Moore, Willie Davis, who died in the penitentiary. Also I did some stuff with Richie Rich And The Funky White Boys and we did that at a Chicago studio. Tomiko Dixon has been trying to help me gain royalties from some of the records I have been on and we saw Jay B. Ross the lawyer and I signed some papers and they put my song ‘Funky Blues’ on BMI.

Over the years I have won some awards and been inducted into the hall of fame. The first one I got was Master Blues Artist and that was from Michael Packer out of New York. In 2018 I was awarded by Odie Payne Jr. the ‘Official Legendary Time Keeper Drum Major Of Excellence Chicago Blues And Jazz Drummer’ and in 2018 I was awarded ‘Outstanding Band Leader And Role Model’. People like Jimmy Tillman have said that he has been listening to me and I am one of his role models.

When I was younger I had TB of the spine and I could have been paralyzed from the waist down if they hadn’t caught the TB in my spine, and when I was seventeen I had heart disease that caused my heart to swell and I almost died, then I had high blood pressure and diabetes and then anxiety and depression now. I almost quit playing music in 2009 after my mother died and actually I didn’t want to live any more as we were so close, and she raised me by herself and I think made a pretty good job of it. She barely made eighty one and she had multiple myeloma so everything I do I dedicate to her. I still shed a tear now and then for her.

In the future I would love to do more drum clinics and drum workshops and help mentor young drummers. I would also like to have my picture on the front of a magazine. I have an active Facebook page where people can see what I’m doing and read about me.

Interview took place in the artist’s north side apartment in Chicago June 2019. Many thanks go to Jim Feeney for all of his help.

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