Carl Perkins Biography

Carl Lee Perkins, 9 April 1932, Ridgely, Tennessee, USA (his birth certificate misspelled the last name as Perkings), d. 19 January 1998, Nashville, Tennessee, USA. Carl Perkins was one of the most renowned rockabilly artists recording for Sun Records in the 50s and the author of the classic song ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. As a guitarist, he influenced many of the next generation of rock ‘n’ rollers, most prominently, George Harrison and Dave Edmunds. His parents, Fonie ‘Buck’ and Louise Brantley Perkins, were sharecroppers during the Depression and the family was thus very poor. As a child Perkins listened to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio, exposing him to C&W (or hillbilly) music, and he listened to the blues being sung by a black sharecropper named John Westbrook across the field from where he worked. After World War II the Perkins family relocated to Bemis, Tennessee, where he and his brothers picked cotton; by that time his father was unable to work due to a lung infection. Having taught himself rudimentary guitar from listening to such players as Butterball Page and Arthur Smith, Perkins bought an electric guitar and learned to play it more competently.

In 1953 Carl, his brothers Jay (b. 1930; rhythm guitar) and Clayton (b. 1934, d. 1974; upright bass), and drummer W.S. ‘Fluke’ Holland formed a band that worked up a repertoire of hillbilly songs performing at local honky tonks, primarily in the Jackson, Tennessee area, where Carl settled with his wife Valda Crider in 1954. His borrowing of some techniques from the black musicians he had studied set Perkins apart from the many other country guitarists in that region at that time; his style of playing lead guitar fills around his own vocals was similar to that used in the blues. Encouraged by his wife, and by hearing a record by Elvis Presley on the radio, Perkins decided in 1954 to pursue a musical career. That October the Perkins brothers travelled to Memphis to audition for Sam Phillips at Sun Records. Phillips was not overly impressed, but agreed that the group had potential. In February 1955 he issued two songs from that first Perkins session, ‘Movie Magg’ and ‘Turn Around’, on his new Flip label. Pure country in nature, these did not make a dent in the market. Perkins’ next single was issued in August, this time on Sun itself. One track, ‘Let The Jukebox Keep On Playing’, was again country, but the other song, ‘Gone! Gone! Gone!’ was pure rockabilly. Again, it was not a hit. That November, after Phillips sold Presley’s Sun contract to RCA Records, Phillips decided to push the next Perkins single, an original called ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. The song had its origins when Johnny Cash, another Sun artist, suggested to Perkins that he write a song based on the phrase ‘Don’t step on my blue suede shoes’. It was recorded at Sun on 19 December 1955, along with three other songs, among them the b-side ‘Honey Don’t’, later to be covered by the Beatles. ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ entered the US Billboard chart on 3 March 1956 (the same day Presley’s first single entered the chart), by which time several cover versions had been recorded, by a range of artists from Presley to Lawrence Welk. Perkins’ version quickly became a huge hit and was also the first country record to appear on both the R&B chart and the pop chart, in addition to the country chart.

Just as Perkins was beginning to enjoy the fruits of his labour, the car in which he and his band were driving to New York was involved in a severe accident near Dover, Delaware, when their manager, Stuart Pinkham, fell asleep at the wheel. Perkins and his brother Clayton suffered broken bones; brother Jay suffered a fractured neck; and the driver of the truck they hit, Thomas Phillips, was killed. ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ ultimately reached number 2 on the pop chart, a number 1 country hit and an R&B number 2. Owing to the accident, Perkins was unable to promote the record, the momentum was lost, and none of his four future chart singles would climb nearly as high. In the UK, ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ became Perkins’ only chart single, and was upstaged commercially by the Presley cover version. Perkins continued to record for Sun until mid-1958, but the label’s newcomers, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, occupied most of Sam Phillips’ attention. Perkins’ follow-up to ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, ‘Boppin’ The Blues’, only reached number 70, and ‘Your True Love’ number 67. While still at Sun, Perkins did record numerous tracks that would later be revered by rockabilly fans, among them ‘Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby’ and ‘Matchbox’, both of which were also covered by the Beatles. On 4 December 1956, Perkins was joined by Lewis and a visiting Presley at Sun in an impromptu jam session which was recorded and released two decades later under the title ‘The Million Dollar Quartet’. (Johnny Cash, despite having his photograph taken with Presley, Lewis and Carl, did not take part in the ‘million dollar session’ - he went shopping instead.) One of Perkins’ last acts while at Sun was to appear in the film Jamboree, singing a song called ‘Glad All Over’. In January 1958, Perkins signed with Columbia Records, where Cash would soon follow. Although some of the songs he recorded for that label were very good, only two, ‘Pink Pedal Pushers’ and ‘Pointed Toe Shoes’, both obvious attempts to recapture the success of his first footwear-orientated hit, had a minor impression on the charts. Later that year Jay Perkins died of a brain tumour, causing Carl to turn alcoholic, an affliction from which he would not recover until the late 60s.

In 1963 Perkins signed with Decca Records, for whom there were no successful releases. He also toured outside of the USA in 1963-64; while in Britain, he met the Beatles, and watched as they recorded his songs. Perkins, who, ironically, was becoming something of a legend in Europe (as were many early rockers), returned to England for a second tour in October 1964. By 1966 he had left Decca for the small Dollie Records, a country label. In 1967 he joined Johnny Cash’s band as guitarist and was allotted a guest singing spot during each of Cash’s concerts and television shows. In 1969, Cash recorded Perkins’ song ‘Daddy Sang Bass’, a minor hit in the USA. By 1970, Perkins was back on Columbia, this time recording an album together with new rock revival group NRBQ. In 1974 he signed with Mercury Records. Late that year his brother Clayton committed suicide and their father died. Perkins left Cash in 1976 and went on the road with a band consisting of Perkins’ two sons, with whom he was still performing in the 90s. A tribute single to the late Presley, ‘The EP Express’, came in 1977 and a new album, now for the Jet label, was released in 1978.

By the 80s Perkins’ reputation as one of rock’s pioneers had grown. He recorded an album with Cash and Lewis, The Survivors (another similar project, with Cash, Lewis and Roy Orbison, Class Of ’55, followed in 1986). Perkins spent much of the 80s touring and working with younger musicians who were influenced by him, among them Paul McCartney and the Stray Cats. In 1985 he starred in a television special to mark the 30th anniversary of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. It co-starred Harrison, Ringo Starr, Dave Edmunds, two members of the Stray Cats, Rosanne Cash and Eric Clapton. In 1987 Perkins was elected to the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. He signed to the Universal label in 1989 and released Born To Rock. His early work has been anthologized many times in several countries. He was unwell for much of the 90s and suffered from a heart condition that took its toll in January 1998.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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