19 January 1998 – Carl Perkins was born April 9th 1932 near Tiptonville, Tennessee, the son of poor sharecroppers, Buck and Louise Perkins (misspelled on his birth certificate as “Perkings”). He grew up hearing Southern gospel music sung by whites in church, and by African American field workers when he started working in the cotton fields at age six. During spring and autumn, the school day would be followed by several hours of work in the fields. During the summer, workdays were 12–14 hours, “from can to can’t.” Perkins and his brother Jay together would earn 50 cents a day. With all family members working and not having any credit, there was enough money for beans and potatoes, some tobacco for Perkins’ father Buck, and occasionally the luxury of a five-cent bag of hard candy.
During Saturday nights Perkins would listen to the radio with his father and hear the Grand Ole Opry, and Roy Acuff’s broadcasts on the Opry inspired him to ask his parents for a guitar. Because they could not afford a real guitar, Perkins’ father fashioned one from a cigar box and a broomstick. When a neighbor in tough straits offered to sell his dented and scratched Gene Autry model guitar with worn-out strings, Buck purchased it for a couple of dollars.
For the next year Perkins’ taught himself parts of Acuff’s “Great Speckled Bird” and “The Wabash Cannonball”, which he had heard on the Opry. He also cited the fast playing and vocals of Bill Monroe as an early influence.
Perkins began learning more about playing his guitar from a fellow field worker named John Westbrook who befriended him. “Uncle John,” as Perkins called him, was an African American in his sixties who played blues and gospel on his battered acoustic guitar. Most famously, “Uncle John” advised Perkins when playing the guitar to “Get down close to it. You can feel it travel down the strangs, come through your head and down to your soul where you live. You can feel it. Let it vib-a-rate.”
Because Perkins could not afford new strings when they broke, he retied them. The knots would cut into his fingers when he tried to slide to another note, so he began bending the notes, stumbling onto a type of “blue note.”
Perkins was recruited to be a member of the Lake County Fourth Grade Marching Band, and because of the Perkins’ limited finances, was given a new white shirt, cotton pants, white band cap and red cape by Miss Lee McCutcheon, who was in charge of the band.
In January 1947, Buck Perkins moved his family from Lake County, Tennessee, to Madison County, Tennessee. A new radio that ran on house current rather than a battery and the proximity of Memphis made it possible for Perkins to hear a greater variety of music.
At age fourteen years, using the I IV V chord progression common to country songs of the day (three chords and the truth), he wrote what came to be known around Jackson as “Let Me Take You To the Movie, Magg” (the song would convince Sam Phillips to sign Perkins to his Sun Records label). In these years Perkins also worked during the day at Colonial Baking Company in Jackson Tennessee as a baker.
Most of the music stuff Perkins did in the early years was early country with an occasional rock-a-billy influence. Sun label owner Sam Phillips commenting on Perkins’ playing, has been quoted as saying that, “I knew that Carl could rock and in fact he told me right from the start that he had been playing that music before Elvis came out on record … I wanted to see whether this was someone who could revolutionize the country end of the business.
That same autumn in 1955, Perkins wrote “Blue Suede Shoes” after seeing a dancer get angry with his date for scuffing up his shoes. Several weeks later, on December 19, 1955, Perkins and his band recorded the song during a session at Sun Studio in Memphis. Phillips suggested changes to the lyrics (“Go, cat, go”) and the band changed the end of the song to a “boogie vamp”. Presley left Sun for a larger opportunity with RCA in November, and on December 19, 1955, Phillips, who had begun recording Perkins in late 1954, told Perkins, “Carl Perkins, you’re my rockabilly cat now.”
Released on January 1, 1956, “Blue Suede Shoes” was a massive chart success. In the United States, it scored No. 1 on Billboard magazine’s country music charts (the only No. 1 success he would have) and No. 2 on Billboard’s Best Sellers popular music chart. On March 17, Perkins became the first country artist to score No. 3 on the rhythm & blues charts. That night, Perkins performed the song during his television debut on ABC-TV’s Ozark Jubilee (Presley performed it for the second time that same night on CBS-TV’s Stage Show; he’d first sung it on the program on February 11).
In the United Kingdom, the song became a Top Ten success, scoring No. 10 on the British charts. It was the first record by a Sun label 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.
In the next four decades as singer, guitarist, songwriter, a pioneer of rockabilly music, his influence as the quintessential rockabilly artist played a big part in the development of every generation of rockers since, from Jimi Hendrix to the Beatles’ George Harrison to the Stray Cats’ Brian Setzer.
Other Perkins’ songs include “Turn Around”, “Gone Gone Gone” “Dixie Fried”, “Put Your Cat Clothes On”, “Right String, Wrong Yo-Yo”, “You Can’t Make Love to Somebody”, “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby”, “That Don’t Move Me”, “Boppin’ the Blues” “Jive After Five”, “Rockin’ Record Hop”, “Levi Jacket (And a Long Tail Shirt)”, “Pop, Let Me Have the Car”, “Hambone”, “Pink Pedal Pushers”, “Anyway the Wind Blows”, “Pointed Toe Shoes”, and “Sister Twister” among many others. Carl was inducted into the Rock and Roll, the Rockabilly, and the Nashville Songwriters Halls of Fame; and was a Grammy Hall of Fame Award recipient.
Following the death of his brother Jay in 1958, Carl signed a deal with Columbia. Songs by country influenced singers such as Buddy Knox and the Everly Brothers were crossing over to the pop charts. Carl had some more minor pop hits with records such as Pink Pedal Pushers and Pointed Toe Shoes, but he eventually went back to country music. He signed with the Dollie label in 1963 and joined his friend Johnny Cash’s road show in 1965. He stayed with Cash for ten years, performing solo at times, and occasionally writing songs. Carl continued recording country songs into the 70’s. His brother Clayton passed away in 1974.
In the mid-70’s he appeared at the Wembley Festival in England and advertised his new album, Old Blue Suede Shoes Is Back Again, on British television. He worked with a five-man band that included his sons Stan and Gregg. He also collaborated with other notable artists over the years, including his work on the album The Million Dollar Quartet with Cash, Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis and on The Trio Plus with Lewis, Charley Pride, and The Judds and Billy Ray Cyrus.
Carl Perkins appeared in the 1985 film Into The Night and won the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1986 for Blue Suede Shoes. He took his place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
Carl Perkins was not only an international legend and entertainer, but locally he was a civic minded patron and founder of the Exchange Club – Carl Perkins Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse. In 1979, the news media in Jackson carried a local story about a child who died as a result of child abuse. Carl, a resident of Jackson, saw the child’s picture and thought the child resembled one of his own children. He was so moved by the tragic story, he helped to organize a successful concert and the proceeds generated were combined with funds received through a National Exchange Club Grant. This allowed the center to open its doors in October 1981. This was the first Exchange Club Center in Tennessee and the fourth nationwide.
In later years, Carl suffered a series of strokes. Though he had been ill, the news still stunned us all on January 19, 1998 when it was announced that Carl Perkins had died in Jackson. Carl had battled serious illness before. He was such a gentle soul. It just seemed he had always been and would continue to be the quiet king of rockabilly music.
The tributes were appropriate. A local radio special that included comments from everyone from Dolly Parton to Chet Atkins, Paul Simon to Johnny Rivers, Willie Nelson to Tom T. Hall.
A funeral service at Lambuth University that had everyone from Rufus Thomas to George Harrison, Jerry Lee Lewis to Ricky Scaggs, Garth Brooks to Sam Phillips, Narvel Felts to Wynona Judd in the chapel.
Only Carl Perkins could have drawn together such diversity in talent and generations. They all came because he had touched their lives. We still remember because he touched ours. Whether the music, the man, or the child abuse center named in his honor and for which he did so much, he lived, we shared and it all continues. Thanks, Carl for it all!
He died after two strokes on 19 January 1998 at 65 years of age.