Rave on cats, he cried

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.

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Matt Weitz