Born Carl Lee Perkins, 9 April 1932, Tiptonville, Tennessee
Singer, songwriter, guitarist.
Despite the fact that he only ever had one major hit record, Carl Perkins is recognized as one of the original rock n roll legends. He should have been much bigger, but was haunted by bad luck. He had a beautiful voice, was an innovative guitarist (an influence on George Harrison, Dave Edmunds and many others) and had a warm, friendly personality.
Born 1932, Carl was the second son of a hard-luck Depression sharecropping family. His childhood musical influences were a mixture of the hillbilly music he heard on the radio and the blues he heard from fellow sharecroppers in the fields. He learned to play the guitar from a black sharecropper, which explains the blues elements in his style. With his older brother Jay (on acoustic guitar) and younger brother Clayton (on bass), he formed the Perkins Brothers and began to play the honky tonks around 1953, the year of his marriage to Valda Crider. Carl approached Sun Records in October 1954, after hearing Elvis Presley on the radio and identifying a kindred spirit. His first single, "Movie Magg"/"Turn Around", (released on Sun's Flip subsidiary in January 1955) showcased his range : an up-tempo hillbilly number on the A-side and a Hank Williams-derived honky-tonk weeper on the flip. Throughout 1955, Perkins and his band, augmented with drummer W.S. ('Fluke') Holland, performed frequently and developed new material. The second Sun 45, "Gone, Gone, Gone"/"Let the Jukebox Keep On Playing" was released in August 1955, but passed largely unnoticed, like its predecessor.
Following the sale of Presley's contract to RCA, Sun boss Sam Phillips was determined to mould Perkins into the next Elvis. On New Year's Day 1956 he released Carl's third single, "Blue Suede Shoes"/"Honey Don't". As with the previous two singles, both sides were his own compositions. Perkins has said that the inspiration for "Blue Suede Shoes" came when he witnessed a bequiffed male teen getting upset with a girl for stepping on his suede shoes. It became the first true rock n roll hit and Sun's first million seller. Many sources claim that it was the first record to top the pop, country and R&B charts, but on Billboard's pop and R&B lists, the peak position was # 2. Elvis' s "Heartbreak Hotel" kept "Blue Suede Shoes" from the top pop spot in both Billboard and Cash Box. Those two records became the cry of rock 'n' roll's ascendance. "Blue Suede Shoes" (covered by many artists, including Elvis) has done more than any other song to put rockabilly on the map. But when it came out, the media didn't know what to call this music. The term rockabilly first showed up in the trade papers some eight months later.
On March 21, 1956, while "Blue Suede Shoes" entered the Top 10, Carl and his band were on their way to New York for appearances on the Perry Como Show and the Ed Sullivan Show. They were approaching Dover, Delaware, when their driver, Memphis disc jockey Stuart Pinkham, crashed into a truck and lost control of the Chrysler limousine. Thrown from the car, Perkins was saved from drowning by Fluke Holland's quick action. Carl's numerous injuries included a broken collarbone, a severe concussion, and lacerations all over his body. Brother Jay was even worse off, never fully recovered and died on 21st October, 1958. By the time Carl had recovered, the commercial momentum had been lost, though "Boppin' the Blues" and "Dixie Fried" still made the country Top 10.
Perkins returned to the studio on December 4, 1956, where he first met the session pianist for that day, Jerry Lee Lewis, then still unknown. After cutting "Your True Love" and "Matchbox", which would be coupled for Carl's next single, the session was aborted by the unannounced arrival of Elvis Presley (and, earlier, Johnny Cash). This resulted in the famous "Million Dollar Quartet" jam session, the tapes of which could not be released (partly) until 1981.
"Your True Love" was a modest hit (# 67 pop, # 13 country), Carl's last chart entry on Sun. In 1957 Sam Phillips concentrated his attention on Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, while Perkins fell into obscurity. Disillusioned by his lack of success and worried about the worsening condition of his brother Jay, Carl was fast succumbing to alcoholism. He did his last session for Sun in December 1957, after which he signed a five-year contract with Columbia. But Carl missed the relaxed atmosphere of the Sun studio and had to get used to restrictions on studio time and the general pressures of a major label. With producer Don Law, Perkins tried again and again to come up with a hit, but only "Pink Pedal Pushers" (1958) and "Pointed Toe Shoes" (1959) scraped the bottom of the pop charts. Some of the Columbia recordings were actually quite good, but rock n roll was softening and adjusting to new tastes wasn't easy. Soon the Beatles would arrive and when they did, they recorded three of Carl's songs, "Matchbox", "Honey Don't" and "Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby", all in 1964. That year was a turning point in his career. Carl was almost on the point of quitting the music business, when an invitation came along to tour the British Isles, with Chuck Berry. The enthusiasm of the British crowds reignited his career. He had no idea he was so popular in Europe. During the first of his two UK tours of 1964, Carl cut a great double-sided rocker, "Big Bad Blues"/"Lonely Heart", with the Nashville Teens, released in the UK only, on Brunswick. An unsuccessful tenure at Decca (1963-65) was followed by a two-year stint with the small Dollie label (1966-68). Carl switched to country and the first Dollie single, the excellent "Country Boy's Dream", returned him to the country charts (# 22).
In 1967 Perkins joined Johnny Cash's band as guitarist and was allowed a guest singing spot during each of Cash's concerts and television shows. Carl wrote "Daddy Sang Bass" for Cash, who topped the country charts for six weeks with the song in early 1969. A second period with Columbia (1968-72) and a contract with Mercury (1973-75) yielded no further hits, apart from "Restless" (# 20 country, 1969). Carl left Cash in 1976 and went on the road with a band consisting of his two sons, Stan and Greg. A new album, "Ol' Blue Suede's Back", was released in 1978 on the Jet label. By the 1980s Perkins' reputation as one of rock's pioneers had grown. He recorded albums with Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis ("The Survivors" and "Class Of '55", the latter also featuring Roy Orbison) and in 1985 he starred in a television special with George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Dave Edmunds, Eric Clapton and others (available on DVD under the title "Carl Perkins And Friends, Blue Suede Shoes : A Rockabilly Session). In 1987 Carl was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was unwell for much of the 1990s, suffering from a heart condition. He died in January 1998 from throat cancer after suffering several strokes.
More info :
Autobiography : Carl Perkins and David McGee, Go, Cat, Go! The Life and Times of Carl Perkins, the King of Rockabilly. New York : Hyperion, 1996. 437 pages. Recommended.
Discography / sessionography :
Acknowledgements : Colin Escott, Martin Hawkins, Nick Tosches, Jimmy Guterman.
Dik, November 2013
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