Carl Lee Perkins was born into poverty on April 9, 1932, yet he found within himself a unique form of expression that brought him worldwide fame and gave Memphis and Sun Records time-honored places in history. An innovative singer, songwriter, and guitarist, Perkins was dubbed “King of Rockabilly”, a music genre he helped create and the spark that ignited rock ‘n’ roll. Pop icons from Jimi Hendricks to Bono have cited Perkins as having a major influence on their music, and rightly so. Perkins’ artistry, as simple as some claim rockabilly to be, is mastery without a peer.
Perkins, more than any other artist…provides the archetype for rockabilly in his powerful, biting guitar work, his gritty, evocative Tennessee twang, and his picture-perfect snapshots of Southern life.John Floyd, Author
The Perkins family lived in a three-room shack in Lake County, Tennessee, where they struggled as sharecroppers. By age six, Perkins was picking cotton with his older brother Jay for as long as daylight allowed. They hummed along to the gospel songs of the other workers in the field and, on Saturday nights, listened to the sounds of the Grand Ole Opry that came magically through their battery-operated radio.
Perkins’ father fashioned his son’s first instrument from a discarded cigar box, a broken broomstick and baling wire. Legend has it that when the opportunity came to acquire a battered Gene Autry guitar from a neighbor in need, he laid down three dollars and a chicken to seal the deal. That “real guitar” allowed Perkins to sense his destiny. According to Perkins, “Uncle John, another field hand, showed me how to place my fingers on the strings and feel the vibration that each note made.
That vibration is what moved me.” Too poor to buy new guitar strings, Perkins knotted his when they broke. To prevent the knots from cutting into his fingers, he discovered how to bend notes into what became known as a “blue note”, part of his signature playing style.
After World War II, his family moved to Madison County, Tenn., where a failed job opportunity forced them back into sharecropping. At 14, Carl and Jay Perkins began playing in local taverns and later coaxed younger brother Clayton into learning the upright bass to round out their sound. Playing every available opening at local WTJS-AM, the self-taught musicians were the hottest band in the area by the time they moved to Jackson in 1950. In 1953, Perkins married Valda Crider and started his family while remaining determined to have a career in music.
When Perkins heard Elvis Presley’s version of “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” playing on the radio, he recognized the up-tempo, country-blues shuffle as a sound similar to what his band was playing. After learning that Presley recorded for Sam Phillips at Sun Records, the Perkins brothers headed to Memphis. Phillips gave the “boys who drove so far” an audition and found he liked Perkins’ country vocals and original material — a possible backup if the Sun sound proved to be short-lived. Four months later, Phillips released “Movie Magg”, a song Perkins wrote at 13 that was well known around Jackson. It was a regional hit. “After that, I was booked with those Sun stars, Elvis and Johnny Cash, all through the South and Southwest,” Perkins later shared. “Those tours really got me going.”
His second single, “Blue Suede Shoes”, was a rocker Perkins wrote in his bathroom on a brown paper bag at 3 a.m. Three months after its release, the song became the first record to simultaneously top three Billboard charts: Country, Rhythm and Blues, and Pop. Major offers followed for national TV appearances. But, while heading to New York City, tragedy struck: the car carrying the Perkins Brothers rammed into the back of a poultry truck. Severely injured, Perkins watched Presley perform “Blue Suede Shoes” on The Milton Berle Show to ecstatic audiences.
Unable to play, Perkins’ career lost its momentum as Presley’s record turned gold. Since the song was Sun Records’ first million-seller, Phillips presented Perkins with a new Cadillac. Phillips wasted no time getting his new writer’s songs on tape. The sessions would remain Perkins’ finest work.
While touring abroad with Chuck Berry in 1964, Perkins met the Beatles and attended a recording session where they recorded four of his Sun sides. Ready to jumpstart his career, Perkins found a musical home with the Johnny Cash Show in 1968 and stayed for a decade. The Perkins-penned tune “Daddy Sang Bass” was a huge hit for Cash and, as Perkins claimed, “the song I want to be remembered for.”
The rockabilly revival that began in the early 1980s fascinated Perkins: “Why would those cats want to imitate what we did back when we didn’t know what we were doing or have anything to do it with?,” he pondered, enjoying the adoration.
In 1985, the surviving Beatles, Eric Clapton and other English artists appeared in “Blue Suede Shoes: A Rockabilly Special”, a show taped in London that continued to keep an international spotlight shining on Perkins.
One highlight of pop culture’s newfound interest in rockabilly was the discovery of a rare recording session at 706 Union. “Elvis dropped by Sun when I had a session going on. I had this little song I called “Matchbox.” (Perkins hums a few bars.) Jerry Lee [Lewis] was there ‘cause I’d hired him to play piano. I think Sam called Johnny to come down,” Perkins remembered. “We all started jamming. It wasn’t a big deal when it happened.”
The stars of that session became known as “The Million Dollar Quartet”. An album followed, albeit 30 years afterwards. Decades later, it would be the focus of an award-winning Broadway show re-creating the glory days of rockabilly in Memphis.
One day, [Paul] McCartney called wanting me to come to Montserrat to work on a song for his album [“Tug of War 1982”]. I had my band with my sons; Stan played drums and Gregg, bass guitar. We were playing around doing my little Sun songs, so I had to think about it — for maybe two minutes.Carl Perkins
In 1986, Perkins returned to Memphis to record “Class of ’55: Memphis Rock and Roll Homecoming” at Sun with his former Sun Records label-mates Cash, Lewis and Roy Orbison. Perkins wrote the album’s debut single, “The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll”. Its video starred Perkins, Lewis and Rolling Stone Ron Wood, along with popular Memphis landmarks. Perkins won a Grammy for his contribution to its accompanying spoken-word album.
During the 1990s, Perkins appeared on several star-studded compilations. In 1996 came the release of Perkins’ biography, “Go, Cat, Go”, and an album of the same title, featuring the remaining Beatles with Paul Simon, Tom Petty, Bono, and Brian Seltzer. It was Perkins’ final work.
Perkins died in Jackson, Tenn., on January 19, 1998, leaving a legacy that brought the humble star tremendous pride. Perkins worked with the Jackson Exchange Club to establish the Carl Perkins Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse, and his adopted city renamed its civic center in his honor.
Perkins has been inducted into the Rock and Roll, International Rockabilly, and Nashville Songwriters halls of fame. “Blue Suede Shoes” won a Grammy Hall of Fame award as one of the songs that helped shape rock‘n’roll, and Rolling Stone rated Perkins among the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. All this from a man who once had to knot his broken guitar strings so he could keep on playing.
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