Carl Perkins: 1932-1998
By David Dalton

From Gadfly July 1998


If this were the world it ought to be—that fantasy rockabilly kingdom dreamt up at Sun Records in the mid‑fifties of flash, trash and boogie beat where a simple country boy could become king and change the world—all that!—they'd've declared an international day of mourning the day Carl Perkins died last January.

There'd be a big float down Fifth Avenue with a gigantic pair of iridescent blue suede shoes on it—at least. And cheerleaders and car‑hop girls wailin' and ululating like Tuareg tribeswomen. And as the Carl Perkins procession passed by, the crowds would shout out: "One for the money, two for the show, three to get ready and, cat, we hate to see you go."

A minute of silence would not be appropriate. But man, there shoulda been something, some tribute to mark the passing of this prince of rockabilly. Did that ol' razorback Bill Clinton deliver an elegy? Say anything? Did the Poetry Duma of America recite the words to "Everybody Wants To Be My Baby" at their annual luncheon? I mean this is one of the originators of rock 'n' roll for pity's sake. With Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley a new thing came into the world and we were changed in the twinkling of an eye.

The world wakes up to a thousand million radios blaring rock 'n' roll every morning and there's a bit of old Carl's rockabilly DNA in it somewhere. Ten seconds after the teen universe began, Carl was there. Today he is all but forgotten, one of the unknown soldiers of rock. Rock 'n' roll is the only creature that eats its parents and then falls into post‑prandial amnesia. These kids today! They think Some Girls is an early Stones album.

Carl Perkins' claim to fame comes from "Blue Suede Shoes" which leaped out in 1956, the year of rock 'n' roll's Big Bang. Here's how he described the genesis of his rockabilly masterpiece to me:

I was playing at a place called the Roadside Inn. It was a gutbucket barroom; the tough boys went there and we had a good lively crowd. One night I heard this boy tell the girl he was dancing with "Watch out, don't step on mah suedes" and I looked down at his feet, and he had on this pair of blue suede shoes. It kinda stuck to me. I thought, well anybody that proud of a pair of shoes to caution a good‑lookin' girl to stay off'em you'd have to be out of your mind!

Carl Perkins himself was a mild‑mannered country boy, but there was something about the cat in those blue suede shoes that just wouldn't let him sleep, and early next morning, starting out with the words from a children's game, "Well, it's one for the money, two for the show...," he began scribbling the lyrics on an old brown paper potato sack, the only piece of paper he had around the house.

The next day Carl called Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records for whom he'd recorded his first two singles ("Turn Around" in 1953 and "Let The Juke Box Keep On Playing" the following year), to tell him about those blue suedes. As Carl remembered it, Phillips asked him "Is it anything like 'O Dem Golden Slippers'?" and he said, "Nossir, this is a rock song!" Teenagers, country fans and blacks alike must have had the same emphatic reaction because "Blue Suede Shoes" not only made it to number two on Billboard's national charts, it broke through to become an r&b hit, as well as making it to the top of the country charts. It was recorded in one take on December 17, 1955, and unleashed on the national ear on New Year's Day, 1956.

"Blue Suede Shoes" was not only the first record to top the Pop, R&B and Country charts, it was, according to Stanley Booth, "the most important development since the Emancipation Proclamation and maybe even more important since that was an edict handed down from above (as well as being a cheap political ploy) and the success of 'Blue Suede Shoes' came as a grass-roots demonstration of forgiveness, redemption, and overcoming for black and white alike of poverty and lack of style."

The national media was awaiting the arrival of the Great White Hope. Elvis had hits on the country & western charts but he hadn't broken out yet.

Could have been Carl. People told him that for the rest of his life. But "could have been" seemed to be prematurely inscribed in Carl Perkins' long, mournful country face. He was actually the first rock 'n' roll act to be booked to appear on TV. Of all people, it was "Mr. Nice Guy," Perry Como, who signed him up. But the fates chose otherwise. On March 22, 1956, Carl, in a pair of custom-made iridescent blue suede shoes, was on his way to the Perry Como Show with his two brothers and the band when their car crashed into a bridge. Carl and his seriously injured brother, J.B., watched from their hospital beds as Elvis grabbed the spot on the Saturday night Jackie Gleason Show. In the same week as "Blue Suede Shoes" got to number two in the charts, Elvis's "Heartbreak Hotel" became the number one hit.

Carl's fate was to become a sort of hillbilly John the Baptist to Elvis. Elvis seems to have jumped straight out of Perkins' song full blown. If Carl was the astounded bystander watching the incident go down, Elvis—with his pink shirts, black striped pants, white bucks and sideburns—was the immaculate narcissist the song is about.

Elvis had a hit with "Blue Suede Shoes," too, a month later—it came out on an EP. He hadn't borrowed his style from Carl, just the song. Although it didn't do as well as Carl's version, Elvis turned the song inside out. He took the understated defiance of "Blue Suede Shoes" and amped it up. He customized it, he flaunted its hillbilly swagger and impudence.

Enmeshed in the echo‑haunted sound of Elvis' voice the song isn't about an incident on the dance floor anymore. It takes on epic significance. It's in wide‑screen Presleyvision, an amplified metaphor for what is about to happen in America. It's about Elvis and everything Elvis, the gold‑lamé godling, seemed to stand for: insolent narcissism and teen flash.

Elvis popped out of that song like a demon out of a bottle. Once Elvis was finished with them, those blue suede shoes didn't belong to Perkins anymore. They never were Carl's in the first place. That song would forever be about Elvis.

Carl Perkins was only three years older than Elvis, but when you see them together in photographs they look like they are from different generations. Perkins is already a man when he trades autographs with Elvis for the press. He knows who he is. His face has settled into its lantern‑jawed set. Elvis' face is doughy, unformed, an embryo of his future self. He is slowly crystallizing the child‑man persona that would become the essence of the rock star. Everything about Elvis that is in suspension—his vulnerability, his contradictions, his androgyny, his insecurity and brashness—is what made him a star. The future floats in his face. In Perkins' face you see the past—the history of the poor white farmer. And that's just what he was.

He was born April 9, 1932 the son of sharecroppers, the only white family on a plantation in the flatlands of Lake County, Tennessee. And it was in the cotton fields around his home that he first heard black workers "make that rhythm thing with their mouths, ba‑dum, ba‑dum, ba‑dum, 'cause they couldn't take instruments out in the fields." He learned guitar from an old black man, Uncle John, and his dad made him his first one out of a cigar box and baling wire.

"White music, I like Bill Monroe," he told Michael Lydon. "His fast stuff; for colored I like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, their electric stuff. Even back then, I used to do Hooker songs Bill‑Monroe style, blues with a country beat."

Country boys had been working at the same blend for some time. You can hear the beginnings of rockabilly on Hank Williams's faster songs (like "Settin' the Woods on Fire") and Elvis had already put a rock beat behind Bill Monroe's ballad "Blue Moon Over Kentucky" on his first recording. Carl had even made up a rocking version of "Home On The Range" at the age of twelve.

Carl grew up not far from the Mississippi—up river from Johnny Cash over in Arkansas. Although they did not know each other as kids, he could easily remember the flood in Cash's country hit "Five Feet High and Rising."

Through music Carl escaped the grinding poverty he vividly evoked in "I'm Tired" with his tasty guitar riffs and colorful, humorous country tales. "Movie Magg," written when he was twelve, tells about taking a girl to the "movie show" on horseback and quaking as he takes her home to find her daddy waiting for him with a shotgun.

"In the part of the country I'm from, music was a way out," Carl said about what kept him going through the years of playing Arkansas and West Tennessee schoolhouses and "gutbuckets," barely earning enough to make the payments on the car. "Poverty's what caused a good deal of songs to be written, and a country boy had to really put his heart into it, to tell his story and make it real and beautiful." This is the essence of Carl Perkins and his music, which is full of down home details and country flavorings; "drinking liquor from an old fruit jar," the redneck bars of "dixie fried" or Carl sending his love to his wife Valda via the moon from his motel window while on the road.

At the Memphis studios of Sun Records in 1955, Carl, Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis, all in their prime, put together two hours of what is probably the most valuable unreleased tape of all time—The Million Dollar Quartet, as it is referred to, harmonized together on country gospel, Fats Domino tunes and just plain rocking out. Just four rockabilly cats boogie‑ing out.

Rockabilly—a mid‑fifties fusion of country and r&b—was a short‑lived hybrid but one of the principal roots of rock 'n' roll. The lurching energy and aggression of rockabilly captured the rhythm of machinery and the erutibility of redneck life in the rural south. The mechanization of the farm is in there—tractors, combine harvesters—the relentless driving sound of machines. You can hear the V‑8 engine of rockabilly turn over in the stop‑time rhythm of "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Dixie Fried" is saturated with the violence of boozing, brawling volatility of Saturday night gutbuckets.

Carl Perkins' songs are Southern tales filled with vivid images of rural life. Like dreams they blend details of hardscrabble life with folk fantasy life into disjointed pictures suddenly illuminated by an oil lamp in a darkened room.

They are sonograms of lived life. In these flatland dramas we hear the Kentucky‑Tennessee speech patterns transmuted into music, its own music, the cadence of the voice. The length of breath, the turn of phrase heard at the feed store, the filling station. The cadence of country living hums through his songs, the feel of that life, the poetic language of the ruminant South. You can't sing "Honey Don't" without slipping into a Tennessee lilt.

The world Carl Perkins sang about was on the cusp of the postmodern age—or whatever this is. The old rural America before TV and technology's progeny of precocious appliances rewired us. Before everything got complicated and self‑referential.

Friends and neighbors getting together on a Saturday night playing music, singing, dancing, drinking moonshine and cooking up crawfish pie. Where there was always someone who played the fiddle, the banjo, the guitar or who could blow in a jug. The spirit just had to come out. Stripped of its humiliations, prejudice, brutality and back‑breaking manual labor it all seems unimaginably evocative. A vanished world of prelapsarian grace and hillbilly shenanigans. The Hatfields and the McCoys! Revenuers and moonshiners! Wild, woolly mountain men and barefoot gals makin' out behind the barn! You can see how irresistible and exotic this vanished rural Eden must have appeared to Brit groups like the Beatles and to a scrawny kid from a little Minnesota town. "Matchbox," Carl Perkins' recasting of an old Blind Lemon Jefferson number was the first song Dylan recorded for a small local label.

The Beatles invited Carl Perkins to sit in on the session when they recorded "Matchbox" as well as "Honey Don't" and "Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby." He gave George Harrison a few tips on those country licks and at the end—when the walls were collapsing—they went back to his songs in a desperate attempt to find their way back home.

Carl Perkins was their touchstone. The Beatles were obsessed with him. On the rehearsal tapes for Let It Be, their last released album, they perform a sort of seance with rock 'n' roll ghosts, playing every Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino song they know. But they return to Carl Perkins songs over and over again, as if in a sort of ritual by which they might reconnect to their former selves. His songs became a mantra whereby they can rekindle their original passion, the wonder they first experienced on hearing his music in a Liverpool slum for the first time—a charged, enchanted landscape set to a pulsing deep‑boogie beat. It must have seemed a magic formula to redeem all that had been lost.

Subsequent generations would want to imitate the imagined simplicity and urgency of the way of life Perkins' songs conjure up. You get the feeling from John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival's hallucinatory recreations of the old rural South that they believed you could actually re‑animate that lost world through Carl Perkins songs.

Very few of the lives of the rock poets make heartening reading and Carl's is no exception. His career after his one big flash is a dispiriting tale. He slowly faded from view. Bouts with alcohol and depression as neglect sucked him back into obscurity again. In 1964 he joined Chuck Berry's package tour and in 1965 was on the verge of a comeback when a hunting accident prevented him from following through. For eight years, Carl and the Tennessee Three opened the Johnny Cash Spectacular with his uptempo rockers like "Matchbox." Then he found his own niche playing with his sons on the country and oldies circuit.

He suffered his share of disappointments and grief—J.B.'s death after the crash, the more recent death of his other brother, Clayton, his twice‑thwarted career—but he always salted them down with his own stoic philosophy: "Life, I don't think for any of us, was meant to be a smooth thing. So if you took all the rough spots in livin'—if I had been raised a rich boy, and never had known what it was like to be hungry and cold and want things, and have to order from Sears and Roebuck, and wait, and it'd be too little and you'd send it back and wait again, you know... these were the things that I called knocks in life. They're the things that make you appreciate it when it does smooth out. If it weren't for the rocks in its bed the stream would have no song."

He was too raucous, rough and rural for pop music. He will always remain the hillbilly dreamer who saw the flash of rock 'n' roll, the pink Cadillac of pop of which Elvis would become the living embodiment.

He wasn't a pretty boy, and he lacked the ability to tune into that subliminal beam of rock—Jerry Lee Lewis' insinuating whisper, Elvis' breathy yearning—where sonic waves and teen fantasy fuse.

He wasn't a chameleon like Elvis who could change his scales with every new song. You can't imagine Carl attempting the opera buffa of "It's Now Or Never" for instance. But Elvis' mercurial, almost miraculous ability to transform himself and his material came to seem artificial and mannered, often bordering on camp.

In a sense Carl Perkins' obscurity preserved him. Where many of Elvis' post‑army songs were barely rock 'n' roll, Carl remained an authentic voice, an uncorrupted spirit. In him we can measure how far we've moved away from the original innocence and joy of rockabilly's breathless exuberance.

Plaintive, unpredictable hillbilly inflections draw you into his emotional slipstream as the band shifts into double time. The bass is throbbing, the guitar twangs and as his cracked tones drag over those country vowels like a tiller moving over rocky ground, the night air begins to smell of honeysuckle and chewing tobacco and out of the smoke from a distant curing shack a brooding Lake County diorama rises up before your eyes.