Review by Willard Manus

The subtitle of this heartwarming documentary about the blues musicians Pinetop Perkins, Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith and Hubert Sunlim is “The Long Road to Glory.” It’s a road all three of them have traveled in a lifetime spanning nearly a hundred years, commencing in the Delta region of the Deep South and finishing at the 2011 Grammy Awards where Perkins and Smith were honored for their album, “Joined at the Hip.”

Photo: Sandro
Perkins (piano), Smith (drums) and Sunlim (guitar) were the sidemen who had long contributed to the success of such famous band leaders as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Although the general public didn’t know their names, many blues musicians and fans were aware of their prowess and importance. As singer Bonny Raitt said, “Without these sidemen, no music.”

Fortunately for Scott Rosenberg, the producer/director of SIDEMEN, Perkins, Smith and Sunlim were still alive (in their late nineties) when he started working on his documentary. That meant he could interview them on camera, get them to talk about their lives, growing up poor, black and rural in Mississippi and Arkansas, struggling to survive and play their music, the roots music known as the blues.

All three shared the same hardscrabble history: an escape from racism and poverty by taking the Illinois Central Railroad up north to Chicago, where there was a thriving blues scene led by Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf. These great artists were among the first to play electrified instruments, creating a new sound that was intense, in your face, and revolutionary. An indie label, Chess Records, recorded them on albums which found their way overseas and influenced such budding British musicians as John Lennon, Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton. And that’s how rock ‘n roll was born.

Photo: Jerome Brunet
Clapton and Jagger turn up in SIDEMEN, along with many other well-known rock stars, all of whom pay tribute to Perkins, Smith and Sumlin, praising their inspired work on such songs as “Got My Mojo Workin’” (Waters), “Little Red Rooster” (Wolf) and “Wang Dang Doodle” (Wolf). Their hot licks, impassioned solos and spirited vocals helped put those tunes on the Hit Parade. Rosenberg uses archival footage, still photos, talking-head interviews and even animation to create a group portrait of these three self-taught musicians who worked for peanuts for many years, often having to supplement their meager incomes by toiling on construction gangs, making moonshine, or running gambling joints. The rough lives they led gave them the right and the artistry to sing the blues.

It wasn’t until the last decade of their lives–-all three of them died in 2011–-that attention was paid to these quiet, self-effacing bluesmen. In addition to winning a Grammy, Pinetop Perkins enjoyed another moment of glory when the entire Rolling Stones band showed up at Heathrow Airport to greet him and Muddy Waters when they landed in London.

When he spotted the Stones standing eagerly at the arrival gate, Perkins turned to his boss and said, “We big men now.”