Rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins lent a helping hand when the two currents that defined Southern music at mid-century -Rhythm & Rlues 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…
|224||Carl Perkins||Let The Jukebox Keep On Playing
Gone, Gone, Gone
Gone Gone Gone
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”.
|234||Carl Perkins||Blue Suede Shoes
Blue Suede Shoes
1956 / first time I saw Carl on the Perry Como Show /
Live on Letterman (1990)
‘Blue Suede Shoes’ was a tune so full of hot licks and hipster cool that Presley himself was moved to cover it. It 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. In deference to their friendship, Presley waited until Perkins’ version had peaked to release his own, which reached #20.
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 Show and 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.
SUN #243 Boppin’ The Blues / All Mama’s Children (1956)
Boppin’ The Blues
All Mama’s Children
SUN #249 I’m Sorry, I’m Not Sorry / Dixie Fried (1956)
Everybody’s trying to be my baby/Sun LP 1225 “Teen Beat”/3/56
SUN #261 Matchbox / Your True Love (1957)
Your True Love
For almost unexplainable reasons, Carl would never again crack the Top Forty. In all likelihood, his Dixie-Fried sound was too “authentic” for what was fast becoming a watered-down teen market.
SUN #267 Carl Perkins, The Rockin’ Guitar Man – Glad All Over / Lend Me Your Comb (1957)
Glad All Over
Lend Me Your Comb
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.
Put Your Cat Clothes On/1/57