Carl Perkins – The King of Rockabilly

Carl Perkins – The King of Rockabilly

Carl Perkins was born in Tennessee to parents who were sharecroppers. Perkins picked cotton in the fields and learned how to play guitar from a black field hand named John Westbrook. It was during this time that Carl was heavily influenced by bluegrass legend “Bill Monroe.” “Some of those old songs [of his] are so close to rockabilly it’s scary,” he said. He was also right on track with Presley in the synthesis of rock and roll from homegrown elements as well. 

The Perkins Brothers Band

He began performing in the Forties with the Perkins Brothers Band, which included siblings Jay and Clayton. They established themselves in the local honky tonk circuit of Jackson, Tennessee. It was during this time that Perkins began to plan by composing his own tracks.

One particular thing he would do is watch the audience to see what their reactions would be during different songs. Perkins kept re-shaping the loosely structured songs until he completed the composition. It was a great way to springboard his music for future endeavors. Once, he got the reaction he wanted, it would get on paper. 

Pounding the Pavement Right Away

Carl Perkins had a lot of determination when it came to his music. As soon as he finished a song, he sent it to all the New York Record Companies. Sure, he got rejected a lot. To the record companies, his music was too strange. It wasn’t the formula that they followed. Back then, you just didn’t mix country music with black musical rhythms. It just didn’t commercially fit on their roster at the time.  

Carl Perkins Hears Elvis On The Radio

Once Perkins heard Elvis performing a Bill Monroe track, on the radio, he not only knew what to call his music. He knew that there was a record company person who finally understood it. Someone who would be willing to take a gamble on promoting it. The man for the job was none other than Sam Phillips and the record company was Sun Records.

Can you guess where Carl went for an audition in 1954?  Did this record company embrace his music? Not at first, in fact they told him to keep writing music and to stay in touch. A few months later, he cut his first single with the label called “Movie Magg.” In December 1955, he wrote the song that would become his signature rockabilly track “Blue Suede Shoes.” Elvis loved the tune and wanted to cover it himself. The track became the anthem for rebellious behavior. 

Perkins Performs on The Perry Como Show

Perkins and the band are invited on the Perry Como Show on Saturday May 26th, 1956.  To sing his big hit Blue Suede Shoes. On the way to this performance, Perkins and the band are involved in an accident near Delaware. While they recuperated, the track “Blue Suede Shoes” had sold more than 500,000 copies. Perkins returned to live performances in April of 1956.

This was just about 3-weeks or so after the song reached its peak on the “Billboard Pop” Charts at number 2. For you Country Music fans out there, Blue Suede Shoes did reach the number 1 position on the Country Charts as well as reaching the number 2 position on the R&B charts. Up until this time, no other song in the history of recorded music had ever reached such a high position on all three charts. 

Across the pond In the United Kingdom, Blue Suede Shoes made it to number 10 on the British charts. it was the first record by a Sun artist to sell a million copies. The B side, “Honey Don’t”, was covered by the Beatles, Wanda Jackson and (in the 1970s) T. Rex. John Lennon sang lead on the song when the Beatles performed it, before it was given to Ringo Starr to sing. Lennon also performed the song on the Lost Lennon Tapes. Perkins is recording with Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis to name a few.

Life After Sun Records

In 1958, Perkins moved to Columbia Records, for which he recorded “Jive After Five”, “Rockin’ Record Hop”, “Levi Jacket (And a Long Tail Shirt)”, “Pop, Let Me Have the Car”, “Pink Pedal Pushers”, “Any Way the Wind Blows”, “Hambone”, “Pointed Toe Shoes”, “Sister Twister”, “L-O-V-E-V-I-L-L-E” and other songs.  In 1959, he wrote the country-and-western song “The Ballad of Boot Hill” for Johnny Cash, who recorded it on an EP for Columbia Records. He performed often at the Golden Nugget Casino in Las Vegas in 1962 and 1963. During this time he toured nine Midwestern states and made a tour in Germany.

In May 1964, Perkins toured Britain with Chuck Berry. He is reluctant to do this tour because he feels he’s too obscure for the audiences. The Animals backed the two performers. On the last night of the tour, Perkins attended a party where he sat on the floor sharing stories, playing guitar, and singing songs while surrounded by the Beatles. 

Perkins Performs with Eric Clapton

Derek and the Dominos (Clapton) performing “It’s Too Late” and “Matchbox” (w/ Carl Perkins) live on the Johnny Cash Show. Recorded November 5, 1970 and broadcast on January 6, 1971. It’s interesting to see Perkins and Clapton performing together. It might look like a slight bit of intimidation as well. Cash also featured Perkins in rehearsal jamming with José Feliciano and Merle Travis. In 1969, Perkins and Bob Dylan co-wrote “Champaign, Illinois” for his Nashville Skyline album.  

In October 1985, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Dave Edmunds, Lee Rocker, Rosanne Cash and Ringo Starr appeared with him on stage for a television special, Blue Suede Shoes: A Rockabilly Session, which was taped live at the Limehouse Studios in London.

Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame

In 1985, Perkins is inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

In 1994, he teamed up with Duane Eddy and the Mavericks to contribute “Matchbox” to the AIDS benefit album Red Hot + Country, produced by the Red Hot Organization.

His album Go Cat Go! is released by the independent label Dinosaur Records in 1996. It features Perkins singing duets with Bono, Johnny Cash, John Fogerty, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson, Tom Petty, Paul Simon, and Ringo Starr.

Perkins died on January 19, 1998.  But lucky for us, he paved the way for future generations when it comes to music.