While assigned to photograph MERLE PERKINS for an upcoming issue of Living Blues Magazine, I visited the veteran drummer at a block party. Charismatic and photogenic, Mr. Perkins was dressed to the nines as he always does when performing. And he played the hell out of his set for the band assembled on the lawn.

Generally cheerful, Perkins was feeling the effects of a financial setback from a recent auto mishap caused by another driver. Dependent on his car to get him to and from gigs, repairs are much needed. His friend, singer BRENDA TAYLOR RICCI, in attendance for a rousing guest appearance of her own, has set up a Go Fund Me site for Merle in collaboration with The blues train Radio Eddy Freeman, and sponsored by The Eddie Taylor Blues Foundation: CLICK HERE FOR THE GOFUNDME.

Merle Perkins is endorsed by Soulmate Cymbals. Below are excerpts of his bio from their website:    
Still percolating on drums nearly fifty years, Merle Perkins was born on July 20th, 1945 in Kansas City, Kansas to Frances Perkins and his father, who Merle never met. Merle grew up as an only child. Merle’s mother Frances was a jazz singer who sang in quartets in and around Kansas City, including Footsch Goodson’s Band. Frances sang jazzy styles in the likes of Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington. Also she listened to the sounds of big band jazz records in her home. Merle has always loved the drums, and said that as early as he can remember, his mother would take him to parades, where the drums would fascinate him, year after year.

In 1956 Merle moved to St.Louis, Mo at the age of 11. During his teen years he often watched the drum corps practicing in the school yard and in 1962 Merle joined the Pleasant Green Drum and Bugle Corp. In 1963 he joined the only black Drum Corps at the time, “The Spirit of St.Louis” Drum and Bugle organization. This corp valued its pride on discipline, great skills of reading and timing. Teaching self-respect and excellence on performing and an outstanding appearance, as well as requirements for reading music and playing drums very well to become a member. 

While in St.Louis, Merle met the first Blues Legend that he would eventually perform with in later years. Merle met Albert King at a club on Whitier and Eastern Avenue at 15 years old, and they ended up playing pool, of all things. In 1964, Merle and his mother Frances moved once again, this time to Chicago, and they moved in on 44st. and Prairie, Bronzeville. Ill. His passion to continue to be an even better drummer, as Merle pointed out; “the Drum Corps is in your blood forever”, because of the closeness of those who perform as a team. In fact many well known and famous drummers came from a Drum & Bugle Corp, for example Steve Gadd among many others.

Merle was influenced strongly by Billy Cobham, the legendary drummer who was the first black drummer to play double bass in fusion jazz and rock. Merle listened to Cobham in jazz guitarist John McLaughlin’s band, which led Merle to buy a double bass. And at that time in 1970 no one in blues was playing drums like this, so Merle became the first drummer to do so. He became very good on a blues kit and adding more tone and sounds to his great abilities as a drummer, and it paid off.

Merle was playing around Chicago in 1970, when he was asked to perform with the legendary Freddie King. Merle went on a small tour in the Ohio Valley with King, on a bill opening for Leon Russell. Buddy Guy and Junior Wells came next as Merle joined their band and toured consistently, even appearing live on television.

The artists that Merle would find himself performing with after this, would include a very long list: Lonnie Brooks, Albert King, James Cotton, John Littlejohn, Buster Benton, Jimmy Johnson, Michael Coleman, McKinley Mitchell, Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows, Magic Slim, Abb Locke, Charlie Mussselwhite, Willie Kent, Joe Kelly and the Blue Shadows, Carey Bell, Son Seals, Johnny Dollar, A.C. Reed, Otis Clay, Lafayette Leake, Lovie Lee, Chick Willis, Larry Davis, Honeyboy Edwards, Maurice Vaughn and Eddie Clearwater for 11 years. He also performed with Pinetop Perkins, Bob Stroger, and Willie “Big Eyes Smith” And of course a band leader of his own band; Merle Perkins and the Perkolaters, from 1990-1997 in which he toured extensively.

Merle has performed in 47 of the United States, and also Canada many times. As well as Brazil, Japan, England, Sweden, France, Russia, Turkey, Jamaica, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and other countries. Merle has recorded with many of the artists under such record labels as; Alligator, Delmark, Wolf (Austria), Ronn, Isabell, JSP, Evidence music, Big Boy, Blue Chicago Records, Upstairs Records, The Blues and Rock Connection and Nostalgia, among other labels. He has performed on all Chicago TV Stations. 

During Merle’s later years working with Eddy Clearwater, tragedy again struck Merle. On July 25th 2009, his beloved mother passed away. Frances Perkins and Merle were extremely close. As his mother was also well liked by many artists as well as being known as a very kind, sweet lady. The loss of his mother was so devastating that Merle came close to leaving music behind all together. Now he dedicates all his music to his mother. Since then Merle has been very busy. As his drum solos allow him to shine on the wide range of influences and techniques he uses. His variety of sounds are wide as well, from sounds of light gentle rain falling from the sky, to sounds of snapping fingers to the sound of thunder.

Merle currently tours and records with various artists. Recently he released a promotional DVD video titled “Merle Perkins Through The Years”, that shows just an inkling of his career. As well as the CD; “Out of Brazil” on Chico Records with Ivan Marcio. A CD was released; “The Chicago Blues Sessions, volume 1”, includes special guests, as well as Merle singing vocal lead tracks. 

Photo © Peter M. Hurley / August 27, 2022

Mr. Hurley is a contributing photographer and writer for Living Blues Magazine and the staff photographer for Chicago Blues Network. His recent book Blues Legacy: Tradition and Innovation in Chicago, in collaboration with Blues historian and author David Whiteis, showcases his work in the field. His passion for blues music began with a 6th grade dance party discovery of Bo Diddley which led to Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and so on. It continues to this day. Visit Peter’s Website here.