Rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins lent a helping hand when the two currents that defined Southern music at mid-century - rhythm & blues and country & western - came together as rock and roll.
He was a native Tennessean who’d grown up in a sharecropping family near Tiptonville, a farming community in Lake County, north of Memphis. Perkins picked cotton in the fields and learned how to play guitar from a black field hand named John Westbrook. He began performing in the Forties with the Perkins Brothers Band, which included siblings Jay and Clayton.
Carl was heavily influenced by bluegrass legend Bill Monroe - “Some of those old songs [of his] are so close to rockabilly it’s scary,” he said - and was right on track with Presley in the synthesis of rock and roll from homegrown elements.
After flipping for Presley’s recording of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” Perkins made the trip to Memphis in August 1954 with the hope of auditioning for Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records. He was told to write more songs and stay in touch; a few months later, he cut his first single for the label, “Movie Magg.” In December 1955, he recorded a song of his that would quickly become the signature song of the rockabilly genre: “Blue Suede Shoes.” It was a tune so full of hot licks and hipster cool that Presley himself was moved to cover it. “‘Blue Suede Shoes’ became an anthem for a rebellious postwar generation, embodying its unrest and pride as succinctly as any James Dean film,” wrote music historian Art Fein.
Perkins’ original version of the song became rock and roll’s first across-the-board chart hit, simultaneously reaching #2 on the pop and R&B charts and topped the country chart. However, fate intervened unkindly to halt the momentum that had been building with “Blue Suede Shoes.” While en route to New York to appear on The Ed Sullivan Showand The Perry Como Show, Perkins was seriously injured when his Chrysler Imperial rear-ended a pickup truck. Carl, who was not driving, suffered a fractured skull, broken bones and lacerations, and his brother Jay had serious injuries as well.
After recovering, Perkins returned home to Memphis, where Sam Phillips gave him a brand-new Cadillac for having scored Sun Records’ first million-seller. As music historian Colin Escott has noted, “Sun Records had never really made money until ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ not even when Presley began selling in respectable quantities.”
Perkins quickly resumed work at Sun, recording a brace of classic rockabilly sides - including “Boppin’ the Blues” and “Matchbox” - throughout 1956. However, for almost unexplainable reasons, he would never again crack the Top Forty. In all likelihood, Perkins’ Dixie-fried sound was too authentic for what was fast becoming a watered-down teen market. On December 4, 1956, Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley (who’d already moved from Sun to RCA) held an impromptu jam session at Sun Studio. (Johnny Cash stuck around only long enough to be photographed with the others.) The foursome were dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet, although the results of the summit meeting were not officially released until 1990.
Perkins moved to Columbia Records in 1958, where he had a few minor hits, such as “Pink Pedal Pushers,” in his patented rockabilly style. In 1964, while touring Britain, he learned to his great surprise that he’d been a major influence on the Beatles, especially guitarist George Harrison. Under Perkins’ supervision, the Beatles cut five of his songs - more songs than they recorded by any other outside source - including “Matchbox,” “Honey Don’t” and “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby.”
Perkins’ career got another boost when fellow Sun Records alumnus Johnny Cash tapped him to tour and record as part of his band in the mid-Sixties and featured him as a regular in his Seventies variety show. Perkins remained part of Cash’s touring entourage from 1967 to 1975 - a mutual show of loyalty from two Sun-era comrades who’d came up much the same way.
When the roots-oriented side of the New Wave movement, driven by such retro-minded bands as the Stray Cats and the Blasters, took hold in the early Eighties, Perkins found himself back in favor once again. A widely watched Cinemax special from 1985 - celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of “Blue Suede Shoes” - found him joined onstage by a few Beatles (George Harrison and Ringo Starr), Eric Clapton and others. In 1988, he reunited with Sun Records stalwarts Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison in Memphis to record Class of ‘55M.
Having survived throat cancer in the early Nineties, Perkins continued to perform and record. His autobiography, Go, Cat, Go!, was published in 1995, and an album with the same title was released on Capitol Records. He also cut Born to Rock for Universal in 1989. Perkins died of a stroke in 1998 at age 66.
Carl Perkins (vocals, guitar; born April 9, 1932, died January 19, 1998)