Walk A Mile in His Shoes: Remembering Carl Perkins
By Sharon Horodyski
Those shoes were the original cool blue suede kind, and during his lifetime he blazed a path that many followed, including, among so many others, a little band called The Beatles. Carl Perkins, with his rich baritone, may well be considered the father of Rockabilly music, and during his life, he stayed true to the sound that he started recording in 1955. One of the grand and glorious Sun Records Million Dollar Quartet, he joined Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley in creating a new, unique sound that was heard round the world, and is still echoing to this day, more than fifty five years later.
Like his other Sun counterparts, Carl Perkins truly was born dirt poor as a sharecropper’s son in Tennessee, in April of 1932. He said that his first guitar was made out of a cigar box, a broomstick, and wire. He was taught to play by a cotton picker on the plantation where his father worked, and from these very rustic beginnings he eventually learned how to play an electric guitar. After some years, Carl formed The Perkins Brothers Band with his brothers Jay and Clayton, and began playing local roadhouses. Carl worked old boogie-woogie rhythms into up-tempo honky-tonk, and enjoyed the reaction he got from dancers and audiences with this new hybrid of music. He was constantly re-writing and re-working songs until he thought it sounded just right. Around this time, Carl was busy sending demos to New York City, which were rejected for having “no commercial value.”
In 1954 Carl heard Elvis Presley on the radio, and hearing a similar style, he headed to Memphis to demand an audition from the legendary Sam Phillips. Carl was in turn signed to Sun Records, and produced several early tunes (“Movie Magg”, “Turn Around”, and “Let The Jukebox Keep On Playing”.) that Sam promoted in a strictly country vein. Sam Phillips feeling was that Elvis (the rising King) and Carl were too similar in style and that there was only room for one big rockabilly act.
By late 1955 Elvis had become too big for Sam and Sun to continue handling, and Elvis’ contract was sold to RCA Victor. In his absence, Carl was encouraged by Sam to turn up the heat in the studio a bit, and one of the songs he let loose with was “Blue Suede Shoes.” It was a pivotal moment in Carl’s career.
It’s almost impossible to underestimate the impact and influence of “Blue Suede Shoes”, a song Carl got the idea for by overhearing conversation between a couple on the dance floor. Blue Suede Shoes rose to the top of the charts, and became Sun Records’ first million seller. It sold TWO million, as a matter of fact, an enormous feat in those early days. It was the first song to ever appear on the pop, country, and R&B charts, making it truly the first “crossover” record. Carl’s gold record for it was his most prized possession, and he always said he “Wore it out looking at it.” It was unfathomable to him that he had come literally from the cotton fields to a gold record. To this very day, Blue Suede Shoes is a rock-and-roll anthem, glorifying our kind of music and the fashion that goes with it. Blue Suede Shoes, more than any other song, declared young people’s emancipation from their parent’s music, and opened the door for rock and roll to take the whole country (and not just the south) by storm.
Carl’s day in the sun however, was unfortunately very short lived. In 1956, The Perkins brothers were driving up to New York City, where they were scheduled to appear on The Perry Como Show to perform their hit song on television. In Delaware, the lives of all were changed forever by a near fatal accident. Their manager was killed, and all surviving were critically injured. Carl remained in traction for weeks, and it was there that he first saw Elvis performing HIS song, Blue Suede Shoes on the Dorsey Brothers television show. Elvis recorded the song, and the rest, as they say, is history. Carl remained in bad physical shape, and, depressed and in debt for medical bills, began drinking heavily and did not really work again until 1959.
Always the true southern gentleman, Carl said he was never bitter about Elvis’ fame, it seemed he was just sadly resigned to life’s course of events. He said on more than one occasion that, looking back, he was fighting a losing battle because it was against a “good looking cat called Elvis, who had beautiful hair, wasn’t married, and had great movies.” Carl continued recording for Sun, though none of his releases did anywhere near as well as Shoes. He followed friend Johnny Cash over to Columbia Records, and sadly discovered that company did not employ the free-spirited and creative attitude that perhaps was the reason Sun was so lucky for so many. Again, although he recorded, sales were slow, and he moved to Decca and then eventually back to playing roadside honky tonks. Carl could not yet know that his records were being worshipped far across the sea.
In 1964 he was offered a tour of England, and accepted, swearing off the bottle and hoping to turn his career around. Amazingly, in England he was treated as a rock-and-roll king by audiences who had been craving American music, and had been snatching up his records to buy as soon as they came off the loading docks in Liverpool. Four of these fans happened to be musicians calling themselves The Beatles.
The Beatles were huge fans of Carl’s music, and George Harrison in particular; as the lead guitarist. George had even used the stage name CARL Harrison as a tribute to their rockabilly idol. They were eager to meet with Carl, play with him, and learn from him. Songs like “Sure To Fall”, “Your True Love”, Matchbox”, “Honey Don’t”, and “Everybody’s Trying To be My Baby” were staples for The Beatles, and Carl was invited into the Abbey Road Studios when they recorded their hit versions of his songs, which was an honor on both sides. Carl’s depression was gone, feeling now that he was not a has-been, and motivated by his previously unknown success in the U.K. The Beatles themselves went on to record more songs by Carl Perkins than any other outside artist. In addition to those that they recorded, they also frequently performed “Tennessee”, “Lend Me Your Comb”, and “Gone, Gone, Gone”. John Lennon also recorded “Blue Suede Shoes” as a solo artist, and Carl remained friends with all of them; frequently working with Paul, George, and Ringo throughout the 1980’s, even until Carl’s last recordings in 1996.
In 1967, Carl gave up alcohol for good, and for the remainder of the 1960s and into the 1970s, he enjoyed his regular gig as guitarist for friend Johnny Cash, traveling all over the world as part of Johnny’s road band. Perkins wrote “Daddy Sang Bass” for Cash, which he recorded and it became a number one hit in 1969. He also performed as a featured guitarist for many other popular country artists, and was seen often on The Glen Campbell T.V show. By the early 1980s, Carl was still enjoying being able to perform on a regular basis, and had a new band with his sons backing him. Again, although he was unsuspecting, the Perkins rocket was about to take off one more time, fueled by fans he didn’t even know he had.
The rockabilly revival of the early 1980s, led by the Stray Cats, The Rockats, and others, jet-started Carl’s career as once again he was in demand all over the world. Although The King was gone by that time, other early rockers like Carl, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis (all; at one time or another, part of the Sun Records stable of stars) enjoyed a renaissance through baby-boomers who were too young, or not even alive, the first time around. They truly enjoyed their rightful place as the fathers of rock and roll, and subsequently gathered together for a successful album titled “Class of ‘55”, released in 1986. Carl toured with Roy Orbison, covering all their hits and showing younger audiences that time had not dampened their own enthusiasm for the music that they invented 30 years earlier. He also headlined a hit cable T.V special called “Carl Perkins and Friends”, co-starring many major artists including Ringo Starr, George Harrison, and Eric Clapton. Carl was subsequently inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
Diagnosed with throat cancer in the early 1990s, Carl nevertheless continued to work as much as he could. In 1996, he released what would be his final CD, “Go Cat Go”, which really was a celebration of a lifetime of music. “Fans” such as Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, Paul Simon, John Fogerty, Lee Rocker, Bono, Joe Walsh, Billy Preston, all joined in on Perkins songs through the years. “Go Cat Go” even featured Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon putting in performances from that great stage in Rock and Roll Heaven. Carl knew this was to be his last recordings, and he said “My Old Friend”, a duet with McCartney, “meant more to him than any other song he had ever written”, which is quite a weighty statement. “You invited me in, treated me like kin, and gave me a reason to go on”. Perhaps Carl was waxing nostalgic about those days in England in the 1960s, or perhaps it was his ever- present optimism, just plain happy and satisfied that his music meant something to people.
Carl Perkins, weakened by cancer, succumbed to a series of strokes in 1998. His funeral will always be remembered as a joyful festival of tears. George Harrison, who had ironically already been diagnosed with the throat cancer that would eventually claim his life, played guitar and sang “Your True Love”. Elton John, Eric Clapton, and Paul McCartney gave tributes. Wynonna Judd read a letter from Bob Dylan, which stated that in 1950s “Carl Perkins really stood for freedom. That whole new sound stood for all the degrees of freedom. It would jump off the turntable, and we wanted to go where that was happening.”
I think that Carl would like to be remembered by his own lyrics, written in “My Old Friend”; “If we never meet again this side of life, in a little while, over yonder, where it’s peace and quiet; My Old Friend; won’t you think about me every now and then… May this goodbye never mean the end.” A more than suitable epitaph for this sentimental gentle giant who helped pave the path we call rock and roll. In the end, Carl Perkins went out the way he first came into fame; always cool, exuding grace under fire, and sailing along on a river of rockabilly. Oh, yeah, and he was wearing those Blue Suede Shoes, of course.