Carl Perkins - Biography
By J Poet
Carl Perkins is one of the founding fathers of rock’n’roll. His early rockabilly sides for Sun Records helped define Sun’s raw, rhythm driven sound and his guitar style was as influential as that of Scotty Moore (Elvis Presley’s lead guitarist) and Chuck Berry. Although he didn’t have any major hits after 1958, he became a top-notch country songwriter and scored hits for Johnny Cash, “Daddy Sang Bass,” Patsy Cline, I “Was So Wrong,” Dolly Parton, “Silver and Gold” and The Judds “Let Me Tell You About Love.” In his later years he kept the rockabilly flame alive as a featured member of Johnny Cash’s touring show. He was inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
Perkins was born in a sharecroppers shack near Tiptonville, Tennessee in 1932. He started working in the cotton fields when he was six and sang gospel music in church and work songs with the African American people he met working in the fields. After his elementary school day was through he worked in the fields and on summer vacation he spent 12-14 hours a day, every day, picking cotton for 25 cents a day.
On Saturday nights Carl the Perkins family listened to the Grand Ole Opry. When Perkins asked his father for a guitar, he made one for his son from a cigar box and a broomstick. They were simply too poor to afford an instrument. Carl’s father eventually was able to buy his son a used guitar from a family friend for a couple of dollars. Perkins taught himself to play copying songs he heard on the radio. Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe were early favorites. He took lessons from John Westbrook AKA Uncle John, an African American man he met in the fields. Because he couldn't afford new strings, he retied strings when they broke. He began bending notes, to imitate the sound of slide guitar, which helped develop his unique sound. At 14 he wrote his first song, later recorded for Sun as “Movie Magg.”
Perkins and his brothers Jay and Clayton started playing honky tonks in 1946 as The Perkins Brothers; he passed for 21 although he was only 14. The places they played were rowdy and they became as well known for their fighting as for their music. When Clayton switched to stand up bass the trio took off. By the end of the 40s they had their own 15-minute program on WTJS in Jackson and were the best known local band. All the brothers worked day jobs, but when Perkins married his wife made enough money to allow the band to become full time musicians. They added drummer W. S. "Fluke" Holland and started building a local following.
When Valda Perkins, Carl’s wife, heard Presley’s recording of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” she thought he was copying Carl’s style. Perkins and his brothers traveled to Memphis to audition for Sun Records and Sam Phillips signed them to his Flip label. Their first single "Turn Around" b/w "Movie Magg" was a regional hit and landed the Perkins Brothers an opening slot on an early Elvis Presley tour where the crowd reaction was overwhelming. “Gone Gone Gone,” their first proper Sun single was another regional hit in 1955. In December of that year, recording as Carl Perkins, the trio waxed “Blue Suede Shoes.” In January it was #1 on the country and R&B charts and # 2 on the pop charts. It was Sun’s first big hit and the label’s first gold record. Phillips rushed out Blue Suede Shoes (1956 Sun) and Boppin' the Blues (1966 Sun) and both albums were big sellers. One afternoon while Perkins was rehearsing at Sun, Elvis, Cash and a new Sun Artist named Jerry Lee Lewis came into the studio and they started jamming. Phillips had the tapes rolling and released the session in 1988 as The Million Dollar Quartet (Sun.)
In 1956, while driving up to New York to accept a gold record for “Blue Suede Shoes,” the car flipped. Jay Perkins broke his neck and died within three months. Carl broke his neck too and their manager was killed. Up until that point, Perkins had been just as popular at Elvis, but the period he spent recuperating stopped his career momentum. Your True Love (1957 Sun) and The Dance Album of Carl Perkins (1957 Sun), which included the hits “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Honey Don’t,” “Matchbox” and “Boppin’ the Blues,” came out while Perkins was sidelined, but as soon as he was able he was back on the road.
Dissatisfied with his progress at Sun, Perkins signed with Columbia and started playing Las Vegas. By then Elvis had eclipsed Perkins and he began abusing drugs and alcohol in his bitterness. Pink Pedal Pushers (1958 Columbia) and Whole Lotta Shakin' (1959 Columbia), mostly rerecordings of his Sun hits, didn’t fare well. In 1963 he toured England and met The Beatles who eventually recorded his hits "Honey Don't," "Matchbox," and "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby." Back in the states, Perkins started making country records and toured with Johnny Cash as an opening act and Cash’s lead guitar player. On Top (1969 Columbia) included a tune Perkins wrote with Dylan “Champaign, Illinois,” was well as Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do.” It was a strong effort, but Columbia didn’t promote it and soon dropped it from their catalogue. He followed up with Boppin' the Blues (1970 Columbia) a session with the NRBQ.
Perkins was a regular on Cash’s network TV show between 1969 and 1971, and also toured with his own band. In 1971, drunk, we walked off stage at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles after three songs and smashed his guitar. He dried out after that and by 1977 was touring again with a band that included his sons. Old Blue Suede’s Back (1978 Jet) was a powerful session that showed Perkins in top form and provided a rockabilly primer for a new generation. It was a massive hit in England. Perkins and Paul McCartney collaborated on “Get It,” which appeared on McCartney’s album Tug of War (1982 Capitol.) He cut “Blue Suede Shoes” with The Stray Cats for the soundtrack album of Porky’s Revenge (1985 Columbia.)
The country flavored Disciple in Blue Suede Shoes (1984 RCA) included his take of “Daddy Sang Bass” and his songwriting career took off with The Judds “Let Me Tell You About Love.” In 1985, Perkins was inducted to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame; the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted him in 1987. In 1986 Perkins visited Sun Studios and cut Class of 55: Memphis Rock’N’Roll Homecoming (1986 Mercury) with Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Obison. Friends, Family, and Legends (1989 Magnum UK) included contributions from Chet Atkins, Travis Tritt, Steve Wariner, Joan Jett, Charlie Daniels, Paul Shaffer, and Will Lee.
Just before he made Carl Perkins & Sons (1993 RCA) and Take Me Back (1993 RCA) he was diagnosed with throat cancer. His last album, Go Cat Go! (1996 Dinosaur/RCA) was an all-star jam session with George Harrison, Paul Simon, John Fogerty, Tom Petty, and Bono. His last major concert was the Music for Montserrat at London's Royal Albert Hall on September 15, 1997. He died on January 19, 1998. Perkins’ moist essential hits album is Original Sun Greatest Hits (1955-1957) (1986 Rhino.)