Carl Perkins

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Carl Perkins Pencil Portrait
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Carl Perkins had just finished a gig in Northfork, Virginia, his composition ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ providing the 23-year old performer with a strong regional following, and ahead lay appearances in the Big Apple on the coast to coast ‘Ed Sullivan’ and ‘Perry Como’ TV shows. It had been a long haul to kickstart his career and life on the road was arduous with poor quality motel food and fitful sleep, yet national exposure now seemed within his grasp. As his entourage set off by car for the long haul by road to New York, the singer/guitarist settled down in the backseat, success now dangling palpably in front of him. Devoid of Presley’s good looks and moves, he nevertheless possessed an original writing talent and formidable grasp of rockabilly guitar, attributes more than sufficient to take him to the very top of his game, yet as night gave way to the early dawn, Perkins would experience personal tragedy and career derailment.

It all happened so suddenly when his driver fell asleep at the wheel, causing the car to hit the back of a truck before plunging into water. The driver was killed, and Carl and his brother Jay were seriously injured. Although Perkins was back on the road in about a month, Jay never fully recovered and was later diagnosed with a brain tumor, from which he died in 1958. Years later, Perkins admitted that he used his brother’s death as a reason to drink. A quiet, self-effacing man, he later observed, “I felt out of place when ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ was Number One. I stood on the Steel Pier in 1956 in Atlantic City, and the Goodyear blimp flew over with my name in big lights. And I stood there and shook and actually cried. That should have been something that would elevate a guy to say, ‘Well, I’ve made it.’ But it put fear in me.”

One of the architects of rock & roll, Carl Perkins is best known as the writer and original singer of the rockabilly anthem “Blue Suede Shoes”. Along with Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley, Perkins was one of the seminal rockabilly artists on Sam Phillips’ Sun label, but a series of bad breaks, followed by personal problems, undermined his solo career. Despite these setbacks, Perkins persevered, creating a body of work that has been both critically acclaimed and extremely influential on songwriters, guitar players, and singers alike.

The pubescent Carl grew up poor in a sharecropping family that picked cotton in various northwestern Tennessee fields around Tiptonville. he was first put to work at the age of six, and it was in the fields that he first heard gospel songs. At night, before the tiredness would overcome his body, he would listen to hillbilly country and Delta blues over the family radio. An older, black field hand befriended Perkins and taught him to play guitar; by the age of ten he was entertaining his classmates, making his radio debut with his school band, singing “Home on the Range.”

He kicked off his musical career in the mid-1940s, performing at local dances with his brothers Jay and Clayton as the Perkins Brothers Band. In 1953 drummer W.S. “Fluke” Holland joined. The next year, after hearing Presley’s debut Sun single, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” (a Bill Monroe song Perkins and his group had been playing since 1949), Perkins and his brothers drove to Memphis to audition for Phillips. Shortly thereafter, they signed to the label and released Perkins’ first single, “Movie Magg” (a song Perkins wrote at age 13) b/w “Turn Around.” The number was based on his real life recollections of a first love and her difficult father, who kept a shotgun behind the door of his shack. Paul McCartney recorded a cover version on his 1999 ‘Run Devil Run’ album and the obvious affection he had for one of his major musical influences is evident in the following link – a backstage reunion the pair enjoyed with a pair of acoustics on the former Beatle’s 1993 world tour.


In early 1955 came “Let the Jukebox Keep On Playing” b/w “Gone Gone Gone.” Perkins’ biggest hit came in late 1956. “Blue Suede Shoes” was an instant smash and made Perkins the first white country artist to cross over to the R&B chart as well. A country, pop, and R&B hit, “Blue Suede Shoes” alternated with Elvis Presley’s first post-Sun single, “Heartbreak Hotel,” for the top spots on national and regional charts. Shortly thereafter, Presley issued his cover version of “Blue Suede Shoes” but over time, Perkins’ original sold more copies. Personally, my preference always lay with Carl’s stop-start version even though he would later admit that the recorded intro was attributable to nothing more than a mistake. Impressionable teenagers of the 50’s simply adored their vinyl records and when Lennon played the Toronto Rock’n‘Roll revival show in late ’69, he opened his performance with the stop start version of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, a musical nuance he must have relayed from personal memory, to Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann and Alan White when The Plastic Ono Band rehearsed in mid air on board their transatlantic flight.


In early 1958 Perkins moved to Columbia Records, where he recorded several more minor rockabilly hits, but by the early ’60s, he’d hit a low point. On a British tour in 1964, Perkins was surprised to learn that the Beatles admired him and that George Harrison taught himself to play guitar by copying Perkins’ records. Perkins became friendly with The Beatles and in June 1964 attended one of their Abbey Road sessions, overseeing the recording of three of his compositions, ‘Matchbox’, ‘Honey Don’t’ and ‘Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby’. Two other numbers, ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and ‘Your true love’ were rehearsed but not committed to tape. The financial implications for Perkins of this single evening were immense, tantamount in today’s terms, to an extremely large lottery win.

His life was punctuated with minor calamities; accidentally shooting himself in the ankle with a shotgun, and losing the use of a finger in an electric fan incident, events quite possibly linked to a period of serious alcohol addiction. He finally won that battle in 1968, dramatically throwing his last bottle into the Pacific Ocean. Counterbalancing these hiccups was the continuity of a forty five year marriage to his wife Valda. If his drinking problem was inextricably linked to his professional problems and a sense of missed opportunity, then he was still able to combine these bouts of depression with some semblance of a sense of purpose, for he clearly wanted to break free of this addiction and would remain sober for the last thirty years of his life.

In addition to The Beatles, Ricky Nelson, Johnny Burnette, and Patsy Cline, among others, also covered his songs. Like many other rockabilly artists, Perkins turned to country material as the rockabilly trend died, and by 1965 he was part of Johnny Cash’s touring troupe. In 1968 he wrote the huge hit for Cash, “Daddy Sang Bass” (#1, 1969). When Cash got his national television show in 1969, Perkins became a regular guest, and he toured and recorded with Cash as well. I have him on film, recorded during the infamous ‘Johnny Cash at San Quentin’ Granada Tv special, his searing rockabilly guitar work propelling the band onwards and upwards.

As a solo artist, he cut some country records and recorded an album with NRBQ. After the Cash show ended, he toured as Johnny’s guitarist until 1975. He then formed the C.P. Express with his sons Greg and Stan, and started his own label, Suede, on which he released two albums -‘The Carl Perkins Show’ and ‘Carl Perkins Live at Austin City Limits’. In late 1978 Perkins released a basic rock & roll LP called ‘Ol’ Blue Suede’s Back’, which sold 100,000 copies in England alone. In 1981 he did some sessions for Paul McCartney’s ‘Tug of War’ on the island of Montsserratt and followed this project with an album entitled ‘Survivors’, recorded live in Germany with Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. Three years later Lewis, Cash, and Orbison were reunited for ‘The Class of ‘55’, a special event that included such Perkins disciples as John Fogerty and Rick Nelson.

Through the years, Perkins continued to record and write. He co-wrote the Judds’ 1989 hit ‘Let Me Tell You About Love’, on which he played lead guitar and three years later, Dolly Parton was the recipient of a C&W hit with one of Carl’s compositions, ‘Silver and Gold’.

In 1992, he was diagnosed with throat cancer, and following treatment, was declared in remission. He maintained a steady writing and recording schedule and diversified into property ownership, purchasing two restaurents in Jackson, Tennessee. One of these establishments is filled with his career memorabilia.

In 1981 he founded the Carl Perkins Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. He died in 1998 after a series of strokes. George Harrison was a pallbearer at his funeral service and performed ‘Your True Love’ in front of the congregation.

Recommended listening

The Classic Carl Perkins (5 CD Box set)

A flawed five disc boxset that collects every known recording Carl Perkins made for Sun Records, Decca Records [USA], and Columbia Records.

Some unrealised compositional ideas and full blown turkeys abound on the last two discs (the man was struggling to redefine his image amongst the teen market throughout the 60’s), but any listener misgivings will be assuaged by the magnificent Sun Records collection.

Between the years of 1955 and 1957 Carl spent many a day incased within the four sweaty walls that make up the now legendary Memphis recording studio, Sun, churning out a wealth of material. While the recordings that pre and post dated ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ are parallel in quality, pop, country, nor R&B charts rarely reserved space for a hillbilly singer with an affinity for R&B. Whilst he bowled over all three markets with ‘Blues Suede Shoes’ Perkins was never again so lucky in that regard. In spite of decreasing chart action and a near fatal automobile accident, Carl’s lucky streak found a new outlet as top artists such as Elvis and The Beatles recorded his material putting him in stable financial standing for the remainder of his days.

The ‘Classic Carl Perkins’ gathers up all of the material the guitarist made while he was dedicated to recording on a full time basis and for devotees, many of his excellent Sun masters are accompanied by alternate takes.

Students of Perkins’ guitar style and rockabilly music in general, should investigate the work of Fred Sokolow – the following title being one of my earliest purchases when I first became addicted to multi-track recording. When it comes to accurately transcribing vintage vinyl, he’s the man.

Check out:

Recommended viewing

Blue Suede Shoes : a Rockabilly Session (HBO) 1985

Fresh from the Geldof inspired ‘Feed the world’ satellite show came the scaled down “Carl Aid”, less grandiose and philanthropic in its aspirations, but equally sincere, as key musical luminaries from the 60’s and 70’s perform with Perkins in front of a specially invited television audience. Coaxing George Harrison and Ringo Starr back together onstage for the first time since the early 70’s, the band rips through Perkins’s vast catalogue with the ‘old man’ near to tears on several occasions.

Recommended reading

Sun King : The life and times of Sam Phillips – the man behind Sun Records (Kevin & Tanja Crouch) 2008

Perkins ‘enjoyed’ the highs and lows of a business relationship with his musical svengali before eventually shaking off the managerial shackles to change record labels and make the move from Memphis to Columbia’s Nashville based country division.

It’s the usual story of an entrepreneur who skews all subsequent contractual terms in his financial favour, whilst the inexperienced artist perceives the arrangements as nothing less than indubitably fair.

Summoned from a period of recuperation after his near fatal car crash, Phillips ensured the presence of a press representative when he presented Perkins with a brand new two tone Cadillac to reward the singer for sales of one million plus singles of his composition ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. The artist would be subsequently dismayed to discover that the cost of the car had been deducted from his royalties.

A longstanding dispute with Sam Phillips over the royalties to ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ would take years to resolve whilst ultimately providing a solid base of financial security to his life.