- CARL PERKINS -
Rockabilly Legends Exclusive
A brief look at the Rockabilly Legends Carl Perkins, by such notable figures as Kris Kristofferson and Charlie Daniels.
CARL PERKINS - Rock and Roll and Rockabilly Pioneer. Although Perkins is closely associated with his current hometown of Jackson, Tennessee, he was born in the far northwest corner of the state, close to the banks of the Mississippi. His birth certificate gives his parents address as Route 1, Ridgely County, Tiptonville, Tennessee, and their names as Fonie "Buck" Perkins and Louise Brantley. Their second child, born on April 9, 1932, was christened Carl Lee Perkins. The misspelling of the family name suggest that the literacy of government employees was barely a notch higher than that of the people they were cataloging. It was the height of the Depression, and Buck Perkins was a sharecropper without a market. The family lived first in a three-room shack and then in a one-room storehouse. The kids in the neighbourhood brought castoff clothes for the Perkins brothers, and Carl has often told the story of how kid asked for his pants back after Carl had tackled him in a football game.
Music entered Carl Perkins life from two directions: the Grand Ole Opry from Nashville, and a black sharecropper from across the field. The black sharecropper was named John Weststrook (or Westbrooks), and Perkins called him Uncle John. "He used to sit out on the front porch at night", Perkins told Lenny Kaye, "with a gallon bucket full of coal oil rags that he'd burn to keep the mosquitoes off him, and I'd ask my daddy if I could go to Uncle John's and hear him pick some".
In the same way that Perkins rarely sings a song the way twice, he never seems to tell a story exactly the same way. In some versions, Uncle John gives Carl his guitar on a Saturday and dies the following Wednesday. Shortly after the end of World War II, Buck Perkins moved his family to Bemis, Tennessee, where his brothers worked in the cotton mills. Buck was refused a job in the mills because of his deteriorating lungs, and the Perkins family went back to sharecropping, although by this time they had a house with electricity and a refrigerator. Perkins soon found a use for the electricity when he bought a cheap Harmony electric guitar and plugged it in.
Although he will generally claim to have no direct influences, Carl Perkins' style was obviously formed by listening to the guitarists who worked on the Opry. In particular, he remembers "Butterball" Page, who played single-strings leads with Ernest Tubb for a few years in the late 1940s. Another important influence was probably Arthur Smith, whose 1946 hit "Guitar Boogie" influenced a generation of pickers and set a new standard for sheer technique.
And then there was the blues. It's unlikely that Perkins was allowed to listen to the rhythm and blues stations, but he never forgot the lessons that Uncle John had taught him. The choices of venues available to the brothers was limited, virtually confined to church socials and honky-tonks; the Perkins Brothers Band gravitated naturally toward the latter. Jay Perkins handled some of the vocals, singing in a rough-hewn voice modeled on Ernest Tubb. But it was Carl who was both principal vocalist and lead guitarist. By 1954 their repertoire included a fair sampling of hillbilly standards, "Always Late (With Your Kisses", "Jealous Heart", "Honky-Tonk Blues", and the inevitable "Lovesick Blues"; there was also a little pop music, in the shape of "I'll Walk Alone".
The reason revolves around Carl Perkins and the nature of his music. By 1954 Perkins had evolved a unique style. It was not pure honky tonk music but a hybrid that borrowed much in terms of feeling, phrasing and rhythm from black music. "I just speeded up some of the slow blues licks", said Carl. "I put a little speed and rhythm to what Uncle John had slowed down. That's all. That's what rockabilly music or rock and roll was to begin with; a country man's song with a black man's rhythm. Someone once said that everything's been done before, and it has. It's just a question of figuring out a good mixture of it to sound original".
One of his first moves was to bring in a drummer. Drums, of course, were forbidden on the Grand Ole Opry but Perkins decided that he needed them to reinforce the rhythm and keep it danceable. His first drummer was Tony Austin, who would later record at Sun but lasted no more than a few gigs in 1953. He was replaced by W.S. "Fluck" Holland who was originally from Saltillo, Mississippi but had gone to school in Jackson with Clayton Perkins. He bought a set of Brecht drums and habituated many of the black bars in town because, as a drummer working in country music, he had few role models.
Between 1953 and 1955 music provided nothing more than a small addition to Perkins' income from the Colonial Bakery in Jackson. The honky tonks paid $2.00-3.00 a night but enabled the Perkins brothers to hone their music and cultivate their drinking habits at minimal cost.
On January 24, 1953 Carl Perkins married Valda Crider from Corinth, Mississippi. They moved to a government housing project in Jackson as the children started appearing. However, Valda encouraged Carl to work on his music and try for a career in entertainment. As Perkins observed, there were many country boys who were playing with a blues feel and working on the hybrid that later became known as rockabilly music. One of those who had independently worked up a similar style of course, was Elvis Presley. "The first time I heard Elvis was when my wife was in the kitchen", recalled Perkins to Dave Booth, "and she said, 'Carl, that sounds just like y'all. Hearing him do "Blue Moon Of Kentucky" set a flame afire in me and oddly enough I'd been doing that song too".
A few weeks later, the Perkins Brothers Band headed for Memphis. The office manager, Marion Keisker, apparently told them to go away but they met Sam Phillips on the street outside the studio. Carl Perkins first recorded for Flip Records, a nonunion subsidiary label of Sun Records. His first release was "Movie Magg" (FLIP 501), recorded on January 22, 1955. Carl Perkins first met Elvis Presley in Bethel Springs, Tennessee, in 1954, where Perkins was playing a club. Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley appeared together in Memphis on November 13, 1955. Perkins recorded his composition "Blue Suede Shoes"/"Honey Don't" (SUN 234) on December 19, 1955. On March 27, 1956, Perkins was injured in an automobile accident that took the life of his brother and manager Jay. Disc jockey David Steward fell asleep at the wheel while the band was en route to New York City to appear on TV's "Ed Sullivan Show" and "The Perry Como Show", which would have given them national exposure. At the time of the accident, Perkins' version of "Blue Suede Shoes" are released on January 1, 1956, reached on February 18, 1956 for 24 weeks on the Country charts peaked at number 1; on March 3, 1956, "Blue Suede Shoes" reached for 21 weeks on the Billboard Most Played In Juke Boxes chart peaked at number 2 for 4 weeks; on March 10, 1956 the number reached two on the Billboard Hot 100 charts; and peaked for 16 weeks on the Rhythm and Blues charts for 4 weeks at number 2. After the accident he was taken to the General Hospital in Dover, Delaware, where he received a Western Union telegram from Elvis Presley on March 28, 1956, that read: "We were all shocked and very sorry to hear of the accident. I know what it is for I had a few bad ones myself. If I can help you in any way please call me. I will be at the Warwick Hotel in New York City. Our wishes are for a speedy recovery for you and the other boys. Sincerely Elvis Presley, Bill Black, Scotty Moore, and D.J. Fontana".
From 1954 to 1957, Carl Perkins and his band, recorded several brilliant recordings for Sun Records as follow, "Movie Magg"/"Turn Around" (Flip 501) 1954, "Let The Jukebox Keep On Playing"/"Gone, Gone, Gone" (SUN 224) 1955, "Blue Suede Shoes"/"Honey Don't" (SUN 234) 1955, "Sure To Fall"/"Tennessee" (SUN 235) 1955, "Boppin' The Blues"/"All Mama's Children" (SUN 243) 1956, "Dixie Fried"/"I'm Sorry I'm Not Sorry" (SUN 249) 1956, "You're True Love"/"Matchbox" (SUN 261) 1956, "That's Right"/"Forever Yours" (SUN 274), and "Lend Me Your Comb"/"Glad All Over" (SUN 287) 1957.
In 1957 his last single hit the market, Carl Perkins had quit Sun Records. He and Johnny Cash had been approached by Don Law from Columbia Records in August 1957 who proposed that both artists move to Columbia. An agreement in principle was signed with Columbia in November 1957 and the contract was dated January 25, 1958. With his career as a rock singer fading fast, Carl Perkins turned back to the honky tonks. He also turned to the bottle. His alcoholism was precipitated by the death of his older brother Jay from a malignant brain tumor on October 22, 1958. 1959 was the last year in which Carl Perkins entertained serious hopes of recapturing his place in the sun. Later in 1959 W.S. Holland quit the line-up. He tried managing Carl Mann for a while and then opted for the security of playing drums behind Johnny Cash. By this point, Perkins had stated working long stints in Las Vegas which would hardly seem to be his natural habitat. In August 1963, Carl Perkins signed a two-year contract with Decca Records and recorded four titles in Nashville where MOR, country had co-opted rockabilly beyond recognition. The session got off to a sluggish start with two of the least exciting songs in the Perkins canon. On June 1, 1964 is historically resonant, Perkins attended a Beatles session at Abbey Road in Liverpool where his Scouse admirers completed five takes of "Matchbox" between 2:30 and 5:30 pm.
Back in the USA, Carl Perkins worked clubs with George Morgan, Webb Pierce and Faron Young. In mid-July, he caught his left hand in the blades of an electric fan at a club in Dyersberg, Tennessee. He was taken 60 miles to hospital in Jackson while blood dripped through the floorboards of his Buick. The surgeon was persuaded not to amputate two of his fingers. In mid-October, Carl Perkins flew to London for a second tour of England. It was tabled The Rhythm and Blues Show 1964 and Carl topped the first half of a bill which included The Animals, Tommy Tucker, Elkie Brooks, Ray Cameron, The Quotations, The Nashville Teens, The Plebs and, at selected venues, Barry St. John. In 1980s, Carl Perkins still live in Jackson, Tennessee, and the part of Carl Perkins that he will leave behind consists of a handful of recordings, only a few of which were released during his tenure with Sun, but recordings that still form the bulk of his stage repertoire today. They also remain, all told, one of the landmarks of pure, carefree rock and roll. From 1965 through 1975, Carl Perkins constantly drinking alcohol and toured with Johnny Cash in the United States.
Elvis Presley, who recorded a faster version of Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" in 1956, was present at Perkins' recording session on December 4, 1956, when he recorded "Matchbox" (SUN 261) and other songs. That impromptu get-together was later dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet. Elvis Presley last played with Carl Perkins on July 4, 1976, for a Bicentennial concert in Memphis. After Elvis Presley's death, Carl Perkins recorded the tribute record "The Whole World Misses You" (JET 117). In 1974, Carl Perkins wrote and recorded the novelty record "The E.P. Express" (Mercury 73609) in his own rockabilly style. In 1986, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison recorded as the group "Class Of 55" at Sun Recording Studio, 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee, "We Remember The King" (American Smash 88142-7). RCA's Chet Atkins once remarked to Sam Phillips when Carl Perkins had the number two record in the country with "Blue Suede Shoes", "We thought for a while we bought the wrong Sun artist". In 1987, Carl Perkins was elected in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, included with Eddie Cochran, Bill Haley, Roy Orbison, and Ricky Nelson.
The Beatles recorded the following Carl Perkins compositions: "Honey Don't", flip-side of "Blue Suede Shoes", "Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby", and "Matchbox". On February 4, 1969, Jackson, Mississippi celebrated Carl Perkins Day. Carl Perkins once said of Elvis Presley, "This boy had everything. He had the looks, the moves, the manager, and the talent. And he didn't look like Mr. Ed, like a lot of us did. In the way he looked, way he talked, way he eyed, he really was different". On January 19, 1998, about 10:30 p.m., Carl Perkins died in Madison County General Hospital in Jackson, Tennessee, following a series of strokes and an extended stay in Intensive Care at the age of 65.
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