Carl Perkins

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Carl Perkins
Carl Perkins
Carl Perkins
Background information
Birth name Carl Lee Perkins
Also known as Carl Perkins
Born April 9 1932(1932-04-09)
Origin Tiptonville, Tennessee, USA
Died January 19 1998 (aged 65)
Genre(s) Rock
Occupation(s) Singer
Years active 1955 – 1998
Label(s) Sun, Columbia

Carl Lee Perkins (April 9, 1932 – January 19, 1998) was an American pioneer of rockabilly music, a mix of rhythm and blues and country music, recorded most notably at Sun Records in Memphis, beginning in 1954. His best known song is "Blue Suede Shoes," a rock and roll classic that illustrates the close relationship between rockabilly and early rock and roll.

After the huge success of "Blue Suede Shoes," Perkins was eclipsed by rockers like Elvis Presley and others who were able to evolve from pure rockabilly to more sophisticated styles that were more palatable both to the older generation and their own maturing audiences. Perkins' career received a boost in the 1960s, when his songs "Matchox" and "Honey Don't" were recorded by the Beatles. In the 1980s, he enjoyed a degree of success through the rock and roll revival movement, and he later received a number of tributes and accolades from younger performers. He died of throat cancer in 1998.

Along with such stars as Presley, Bill Haley, and Jerry Lee Lewis, Perkins is considered one of the early architects of the rock genre. His songs were covered by major rock acts from Presley to the Beatles and Johnny Cash. His influence on rock and roll music, both in terms of his guitar style and his songs, is still heard to this day. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

Early life

Perkins was the son of poor sharecroppers near Tiptonville, Tennessee. He grew up hearing gospel music sung by whites in church and by black field workers when he started working in the cotton fields at age six. During the summer, workdays were 12 to 14 hours long, and Carl and his brother Jay together would earn 50 cents per day.

On Saturday nights, Perkins would listen to the radio along with his father and hear music from the Grand Ole Opry. Roy Acuff's performances on the Opry inspired Perkins to ask his parents for a guitar. Not able to afford a real guitar, Carl's father, Buck, fashioned one from a from a cigar box and a broomstick. Buck later purchased a used guitar for Carl from a neighbor for a couple of dollars. Carl taught himself parts of Roy Acuff's "Great Speckled Bird" and "The Wabash Cannonball," he also cited the driving playing and vocals of Bill Monroe as an early influence.

Perkins learned more about playing the guitar from a fellow field worker named John Westbrook, an African American man in his 60s who played blues and gospel styles.

Too poor to buy new strings when they broke, Perkins reportedly retied them. He reported that the knots hurt his fingers when he tried to slide to another note, so he began bending the notes. Although this technique was used by many blues players, it seems to have been an innovation to Perkins.

Early performances

When Carl was 14 years old he and his brother Jay got their first paying musical job playing for tips on Wednesday nights at the CottonBoll club on Highway 45, about 12 miles south of Jackson, Tennessee, in late 1946. One of the songs they played was an up-tempo, country blues version of Bill Monroe's waltz number, "Blue Moon of Kentucky." Within a month, Perkins and Jay began playing Friday and Saturday nights at the Sand Ditch near the western boundary of Jackson.

Other honky tonk jobs followed over the next two years, and Perkins talked another brother, Clayton, into playing the bass fiddle to fill in the sound of the band. In the late 40s, Perkins began appearing regularly on Jackson radio station WTJS as a member of the Tennessee Ramblers. Perkins and his brothers also appeared on the Early Morning Farm and Home Hour. Overwhelmingly positive listener response led to a 15-minute segment sponsored by Mother's Best Flour. By the end of the 1940s, the Perkins Brothers were the best-known band in the Jackson area. However, Perkins also held day jobs during most of these early years.

In January 1953, Carl married Valda Crider, whom he had known for several years. When his day job at a bakery was reduced to part time, Valda encouraged Carl to begin working the honky tonks full time. In July 1954, Perkins and Valda heard a new release of "Blue Moon of Kentucky" by Elvis Presley. Carl reportedly said, "There's a man in Memphis who understands what we're doing. I need to go see him."[1]

Sun Records

Perkins successfully auditioned for Sam Phillips at Sun Records early in October 1954, the same label that had recorded Elvis. Perkins' songs "Movie Magg" and "Turn Around" were released on the Phillips-owned Flip label on March 19, 1955. With "Turn Around" getting airplay across the South and Southwest, Perkins was booked to appear along with Presley at theaters in Mariana and West Memphis, Arkansas.

Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two were the next musicians to be added to the concerts by Sun musicians. Over the summer of 1955, there were trips to Little Rock, Forrest City, Corinth, and Tupelo. During this time the Perkins brothers were involved in an automobile accident. A friend, who had been driving, was pinned by the steering wheel. Perkins managed to drag him from the car, which had caught on fire. Clayton had been thrown from the car, but was not seriously injured.

Another Perkins' tune, "Gone Gone Gone," released in October 1955 by Sun, was also a regional hit. That fall, Perkins wrote "Blue Suede Shoes" after seeing a dancer at a honky-tonk get angry at his date for scuffing his shoes, which were made of blue suede. Several weeks later, on December 19, 1955, Perkins and his band recorded the song during a session at the Sun studios. During the long session, as liquor flowed, the sound became tougher, harder, and looser, and Perkins played with increased passion.

Released on January 1, 1956, "Blue Suede Shoes" was a massive chart success. In the United States, it went to number one on Billboard magazine's country music charts and number two on Billboard's pop chart. On March 17, Perkins reached the number one spot on the rhythm & blues charts, the first country artist to do so. In the United Kingdom, Blue Suede shoes also became a Top Ten hit. It was the first record by a Sun label artist to sell a million copies.

After playing a show in Norfolk, Virginia, on March 21, 1956, the Perkins Brothers Band headed for New York City and their appearance on the nationally broadcast Perry Como Show. On the way north, the band suffered another serious car accident. Carl suffered three fractured vertebrae in his neck as well as a severe concussion, a broken collar bone, and lacerations all over his body. He remained unconscious for an entire day.

Sam Philips had planned to surprise Perkins with a gold record during the Como show. "Blue Suede Shoes" had already sold more than 500,000 copies by March 22. Now, while Carl recuperated from the accident, the song rose to number one on most pop, R&B, and country regional charts. By mid-April, more than one million copies of "Shoes" had been sold. On April 3, Perkins would see his friend Elvis Presley perform "Blue Suede Shoes" on his first Milton Berle Show appearance. Presley performed the song on national television three times that year, and made references to it twice during an appearance on The Steve Allen Show. Although his version became more famous than Perkins' did, the song only reached twenty on Billboard's pop chart.

Perkins returned to live performances on April 21, beginning with an appearance in Beaumont, Texas with the "Big D Jamboree" tour. He also recorded a number of sides for Sun, including "Dixie Fried," "Put Your Cat Clothes On," "Right String, Wrong Yo-Yo," "You Can't Make Love to Somebody," and "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby." Sun issued more Perkins' songs later in early 1957, including "Boppin' The Blues," "I'm Not Sorry," and "Matchbox," which is considered a rockabilly classic.

The 1957 film Jamboree included a Perkins performance of "Glad All Over," which was released by Sun in January of 1958. Perkins also made at least two appearances on the Town Hall Party in Compton, California, in 1957, singing both "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Matchbox." Those performances were included in the "Western Ranch Dance Party" series filmed and distributed by Screen Gems.

Life after Sun

In 1958, Perkins moved to Columbia Records where he recorded songs such as "Jive at Five," "Anyway the Wind Blows," "Hambone," and "Pointed Toe Shoes." Record sales, however, never reached Perkins' previous heights.

The Golden Nugget Casino in Las Vegas was the site of many of Perkins' performances in 1962 along with appearances in nine mid-Western states and a tour of Germany. Appearances at The Golden Nugget continued through 1963. In May 1964, Perkins toured England along with Chuck Berry, and Eric Burdon and The Animals. During the tour he befriend the Beatles, and Ringo asked Carl if he could record Perkins' "Honey Don't." The Beatles would later cover both "Matchbox" and "Honey Don't," as well as "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby," which was recorded by Perkins but written by Rex Griffin.

In 1968, Johnny Cash took the Perkins-written "Daddy Sang Bass" to number one on the country-music charts. Perkins spent a decade in Cash's touring revue and appeared on The Johnny Cash Show. In February 1969, Perkins joined with Bob Dylan to write the song "Champaign, Illinois."

In 1981, Perkins recorded the song "Get It" with Paul McCartney, providing vocals and playing guitar with the former Beatle. This recording was included on the chart topping album Tug Of War released in 1982.

The rockabilly revival of the 1980s helped bring Perkins back into the limelight. In 1985, he re-recorded "Blue Suede Shoes" with two members of the Stray Cats, as part of the soundtrack for the movie, Porky's Revenge. That same year, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Ringo Starr appeared with him on a television special taped in London, England, called Blue Suede Shoes: A Rockabilly Session. Perkins and his friends ended the session by singing his signature song, 30 years after its writing, which brought Perkins to tears.

In 1985, Perkins was inducted to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and in 1987, became a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "Blue Suede Shoes" was chosen as one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll, and as a Grammy Hall of Fame Award recipient. His pioneering contribution to the genre has been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

In 1986, he returned to the Sun Studios in Memphis, joining Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison on the album Class of '55. The record was a tribute to their early years at Sun.

In 1989, he co-wrote The Judd's number one country hit, "Let Me Tell You About Love," also playing guitar on the record.

Last years

In 1989, Perkins had signed a record deal for an album with the title Friends, Family, and Legends, featuring performances by Chet Atkins, Travis Tritt, Steve Warner, Joan Jett, Charlie Daniels, along with Paul Shaffer and Will Lee.

However, in 1992, Perkins developed throat cancer during the production of this CD. Perkins returned to Sun Studio in Memphis to record with Scotty Moore, Presley's first guitar player. The CD was called 706 ReUNION, released on Belle Meade Records, and featured D.J. Fontana, Marcus Van Storey, and The Jordanaires.

In 1993, Perkins appeared with the Kentucky Headhunters in a music-video remake, shot in Glasgow, Kentucky, of his song Dixie Fried." Perkins' last album, Go Cat Go! was released in 1996, and featured new collaborations with many of the above artists, as well as George Harrison, Paul Simon, John Fogerty, Tom Petty, and Bono. It was released by the independent label Dinosaur Records, and distributed by BMG. Perkins last major concert appearance was the "Music for Montserrat" all-star charity concert at Royal Albert Hall on September 15, 1997.

Four months later at Jackson-Madison County Hospital, Jackson, Tennessee, Carl Perkins died at the age of 65 from throat cancer after suffering several strokes. Among those in attendance at the funeral at Lambuth University in 1998 were ex-Beatle George Harrison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Wynonna Judd, Garth Brooks, Johnny Cash, and June Carter Cash. He is interred at Ridgecrest Cemetery in Jackson, Tennessee. Carl's wife, Valda deVere Perkins, died November 15, 2005, in Jackson, Tennessee.


According to country artist Charlie Daniels, "Carl Perkins' songs personified the Rockabilly Era, and Carl Perkins' sound personifies the Rockabilly Sound more so than anybody involved in it, because he never changed."[2] Rolling Stone magazine called Perkins one of the "architects of rock and roll."

Perkins is the subject of an acclaimed biography, Go, Cat, Go, by noted New York-based music writer David McGee. Plans for a biographical film about Perkins were announced by Santa Monica-based production company Fastlane Entertainment, scheduled for release in 2009.

In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked Perkins number 69 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. He is universally recognized by pop music critics as one of the pioneers of rock and roll.

See also


  1. Perkins and McGee (1996), 79-80.
  2. Naylor and Halliday (2007), 118.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Kienzie, Richard. Great Guitarists. New York: Facts on File, 1985. ISBN 978-0816010295.
  • Naylor, Jerry, and Steve Halliday. The Rockabilly Legends: They Called It Rockabilly Long Before They Called It Rock and Roll. Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard, 2007. ISBN 9781423420422.
  • Perkins, Carl, and David McGee. Go, Cat, Go!: The Life and Times of Carl Perkins, the King of Rocabilly. New York: Hyperion, 1996. ISBN 978-0786860739.

External links

All links retrieved November 26, 2023.


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