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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
KING AND I
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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