Rock and roll legend Carl Perkins died on Monday morning, January 19, at 10:30 a.m. of complications developed following a series of three strokes that he had suffered at the end of 1997. He was 65.
Although spit-curled Bill Haley is arguably the first white rock and roll star, Perkins was one of the greatest--at the helm of the process through which black blues and white country were first turned into rockabilly and then into rock and roll. The true genesis of the song that made him may be lost in the fogs of time, but as the story goes, Perkins, hanging out with buddy and fellow rockabilly pioneer Johnny Cash, overheard an exchange between two teens at a dance when one stepped on the other's shoes. Cash urged him to write a song around this chance encounter--and "Blue Suede Shoes" was born.
Perkins went on to write and record many of rockabilly's sharpest and most essential songs--"Boppin' the Blues," "Honey Don't," "Put Your Cat Clothes On"--but a cruel trick of fate robbed him of the fame and commercial success that many felt was his due. Big-shouldered, lantern-jawed, and rawboned, he was already a man in an arena dominated by boys, and he represented a middle ground between the urgent-but-sweet sexuality of Elvis and the amphetamine-driven, cousin-marrying satyr that was Jerry Lee Lewis.
Prior to "Blue Suede Shoes," he had made a name for himself on the bare-knuckle circuit of skull-orchard bars around Jackson, Tennessee, with his Perkins Brothers Band, which featured siblings Jay (guitar, vocals) and Clayton (string bass). When they heard Elvis on the radio, they immediately recognized a close relative of their own hybrid of white country and black blues and decided to go to the studio that had produced his music: Sam Phillips' Sun Studios in Memphis.
The group's more country songs (1955's "Let the Jukebox Keep on Playing") left Phillips cold, but the upbeat "Movie Magg"--a song Perkins had written when he was 13--caught his interest. Encouraged in that direction, Perkins cut "Blue Suede Shoes" near the end of 1955, backing it with "Honey Don't." Three months later, "Shoes" sat at the top of all three of the charts that existed at the time: pop, country, and R&B.
The brothers--now joined at Phillips' behest by drummer W.S. Holland--were ready to capitalize on their astounding success. Driving up to New York for their debut appearance on The Perry Como Show, however, they were involved in a collision with a poultry truck. Carl split his head, Jay broke his neck, and Clayton was also seriously injured. Immobile in his bed, Carl watched as a budding young star named Elvis Aron Presley--whose "Heartbreak Hotel" was then running neck and neck with his "Shoes" (and who'd stopped by the hospital earlier to visit and pay his respects)--appeared on national TV singing "Shoes," which became a hit more strongly associated with Presley.
Perkins recovered his health but not his momentum. Although his songwriting steadily improved, he diluted the perception of his talent by following "Blue Suede Shoes" with two bald attempts to cash in on the fame of that song--"Pink Pedal Pushers" (1958) and "Pointed Toe Shoes" (1959). "Levi Jacket," which explored another aspect of rock style, didn't help. He followed pal Cash to Columbia and Nashville at the end of the '50s, but--unlike Cash--the move failed to ignite any popular cachet or creative spark and only further obscured his reputation with a series of uninspired country releases. A long-standing battle with alcohol held him back as well, although tales from this period in his life--of drinking binges that went on for days and blood-alcohol levels so high that songs would be written, then forgotten, then improvised live on stage--hint at a creativity that could be clouded but not killed.
Perkins was nevertheless--at least until their swami period--the major influence on the Beatles, who covered three of his songs (more than any other artist): "Honey Don't," "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby," and "Matchbox"--his remake of Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Matchbox Blues." In 1964, he was one of the first to establish a pattern that would be repeated over and over again by rockabilly stars: Hitless, he journeyed to England, where he was idolized and appreciated for his true influence.
Reinvigorated by his British reception, he returned to the States, where he signed with the small country label Dollie. Although his output on Dollie continued to be fairly run of the mill, it did nab him two minor country hits--"Country Boy's Dream" and "Shine, Shine, Shine." More important was his tenure as old friend Johnny Cash's lead guitar player, from 1965 to 1975.
In fact, it's as a guitarist that Perkins is at his most underappreciated, for he was a stylist every bit the equal of Cliff Gallup, Sonny Burgess, Luther Perkins (no relation), or Scotty Moore. His unabashedly electric approach, sense of tone, and rapid picking style prefigured many rock conventions, and many modern rockabilly pickers play wholly within the boundaries he set without ever even knowing it. When an amplifier was finally built that could duplicate the echo that had previously been attainable only through the studio manipulation of tape loops, Chet Atkins got the first one, Moore the second, and Perkins the third.
Perkins was part of a musical generation not that far removed from the black culture whose music it loved. He was born on a tenant farm in Lake County, Tennessee, near Tiptonville; his family were the only white sharecroppers, and he learned the rudiments of guitar from his fellow cotton-pickers. After marriage and stints in both a battery manufacturing plant and a bakery, he and his new wife moved to housing projects in Jackson, where he, Jay, and Clayton started the Perkins Brothers. Upon meeting Perkins, Chuck Berry is reported to have been amazed he was facing a Caucasian.
Elvis was a genius of assimilation, but Perkins was the real deal: his "Matchbox" successfully translated the sharp, dispossessed despair of the original into a new genre. Perkins was the songwriter that Presley could only dream about being, however, and he wrote one of the best rockabilly--if not just plain rock--songs ever when, in 1956, he wrote "Dixie Fried."
A song that starts at five in the morning with a quart of whiskey and continues through much razor-flashing fun before winding up with the protagonist's imprisonment, "Dixie Fried" contains one of the most fervent exhortations to good-time barroom nihilism ever put to paper:
Rave on children, I'm with you
Rave on cats, he cried
It's almost dawn and the cops are gone
Let's all get Dixie fried
The verses and chorus are punctuated with a seminal--in every sense of the word--guitar lead from Perkins, as greasy as a catfish po'boy and as sharp as the point of a knife.
In 1970, he cut Boppin' the Blues with the highly respected, then-underground band NRBQ. An inspired pairing of roots-worshippers with the real thing, Boppin' the Blues combined Perkins' still-hot spark ("All Mama's Children") and country instincts ("Turn Around") with NRBQ's goofy whimsy ("Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard" and "Flat Foot Flewzy") into an uniquely appealing whole. The album--which was a decade ahead of its time and still sounds as if it could have been released yesterday--was reissued in 1990.
That was the start of a resurgence for Perkins. He finally kicked the bottle for good, and in 1971 another masterpiece--"Put Your Cat Clothes On"--was released after lying on the shelf for 15 years. He left Cash's band in 1975 in order to play his own music with his two sons, Stan and Greg, and continued to draw strength from the adulation he received in England. In 1978 he released Ol' Blue Suede's Back, his comeback album on the UK label Jet that featured old compatriots Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, who had played piano on the original "Matchbox."
In 1979, struck by a newspaper story about a fatal case of child abuse in which the victim resembled one of his sons, Perkins helped found the Exchange Club--Carl Perkins Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention--and dealing with the results--of child abuse in West Tennessee. In 1997 the Center--the largest of its kind in the nation--served 1,263 children and 721 families.
His songwriting continued to serve him in good stead, as it had throughout his career: The man who wrote "Daddy Sang Bass" for Cash and "So Wrong" for Patsy Cline also wrote Dolly Parton's "Silver and Gold," the Judds' "Let Me Tell You About Love," and George Strait's "A Man on His Own." He duetted with old admirer Paul McCartney in 1982 on "Get It," off of McCartney's Tug of War album, and played rhythm guitar "Ebony and Ivory," that album's hit McCartney-Stevie Wonder duet. After the 1986 release of a recording session made in December of 1956 with the Million Dollar Quartet--Perkins, Cash, Lewis, and Orbison--the retrospectives and box sets came fast and furious, as did the accolades: A National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) Hall of Fame Award and a Grammy in 1986, followed by induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in '87. In 1996 he released Go Cat Go, which featured a number of old favorites done as duets with people who had begun singing his praises as his failing health heightened awareness of his place in music history. In the '90s he battled lung and throat cancer and had a blocked artery removed from his neck in June 1997. The first of the three strokes struck him in November. Among those who contributed to Go Cat Go were Paul Simon, John Fogerty, Bono, Tom Petty, George Harrison, and Willie Nelson.
Even though his vital spot may be in music's past rather than its present, even though he had been denied Cash's multiple rebirths and final status as a post-grunge icon, and even though his last 40 years had been based on the four that preceded them, Perkins betrayed little bitterness or regret.
He gave the keynote address at last year's South by Southwest Music Conference, a gently rambling affair that was full of homilies and hymns. Some were neither amused nor interested in what he had to say, deeming his speech cornball. I prefer to think of what he said--in a voice perhaps dulled a bit by age--as wisdom, informed by the knowledge that nothing really ever lasts.
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