Retro Dee is a regular contributor to The Grooveyard’s website, writing about music, fashion and other trends of the 1950s. Check out her blog, Retro Dee’s Guide to the Best Era Ever here, and her column here every Wednesday.
For this edition of TWR, we will be remembering the man known as “The King of Rockabilly” – Carl Perkins.
Carl Lee Perkins was born on April 9, 1932 in Tiptonville, TN to Buck and Louise Perkins. As a youth, he would listen to “Grand Ole Opry” on the radio on Saturday nights. Young Carl wanted a guitar, but his family could not afford to buy him one, so his father made him one out of a cigar box and broom stick.
When young Carl was finally able to acquire an actual guitar, he taught himself parts of songs he’d heard on Grand Ole Opry. He was also coached by a talented African-American field worker and friend who was known as “Uncle John”.
Carl was just 14 when he and his brother Jay played at two local taverns in Tennessee where Carl began drinking as a teen. Both Taverns were known for their raucous fighting.
In the following years, young Carl began performing for WTJS radio station while working normal jobs such as picking cotton, working at a mattress store and greasing pans at the Colonial Baking Company.
In 1953, Carl married Valda Crider, a young woman he had known for several years. Valda encouraged Carl to work full time as a musician in the taverns.
In October of 1954, Carl Perkins auditioned for Sam Phillips at Sun Records. It was then that Carl began performing with other Sun Records legends such as Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.
But Carl’s development of the Rockabilly sound was largely to his own credit. He wrote the legendary hit “Blue Suede Shoes” in the Fall of 1955 after being inspired by seeing a young man get annoyed with his date for scuffing his dance shoes. This hit was originally released by Carl Perkins on January 1, 1956. It was his only number one hit. The B-Side of that same record was the other massively well-known hit, “Honey Don’t.”
Although both songs were written and recorded by Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley is better known for performing these hits which were two of the biggest songs of the 1950’s. “Honey Don’t”, also being well-known as a hit for The Beatles, who once again unabashedly covered another artist’s work.
1956 was a huge break out year for Carl, and a miracle as well. On March 21, 1956, Carl was playing in The Perkins Brothers band in Norfolk, VA. After the show, he and his band mates began a car trip to New York where they were scheduled to perform on The Perry Como Show on March 24. But as the early morning of March 22 dawned, their car crashed into a ditch on Route 13 in Delaware. Carl landed face-down in a puddle of water. His drummer turned him facing up, thus saving him from drowning. It was a close call for Carl, who was grateful to be alive. Unfortunately the driver, a 40 year old farmer named Thomas Phillips was killed. And the casualties did not stop there. Although Carl’s brother, Jay, survived the initial wreck, he never fully recovered, and died two years later.
Carl’s original version of “Blue Suede Shoes” became a Gold Record the very same day as the accident, with over 500,000 copies sold. Simultaneously, Elvis Presley was also becoming known for his rendition of “Blue Suede Shoes” which he performed on The Milton Berle Show on April 3, 1956. Carl watched from home as he continued to recuperate from the March 22nd accident.
In the Spring of ’56, Carl returned to live performances. By that summer he was making a substantial amount of money performing with stars such as Chuck Berry and Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers on the “Top Stars of ’56 Tour.”
One of Carl’s best known hits is the Rockabilly masterpiece “Matchbox”. The song was recorded on December 6, 1956, in Sun Studios. It was that same day that Carl shared a casual recording session with three other music greats: Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. The four legends who participated in that impromptu session are now known in Rock n Roll history as “The Million Dollar Quartet”.
In 1958, Carl changed his record label. He left Sun and signed with Columbia where he recorded many more songs such as “Jive After Five” and “Rockin’ Record Hop”. In 1959 he wrote “The Ballad of Boot Hill” for colleague and close friend Johnny Cash. He also played guitar on Cash’s famous hit “A Boy Named Sue”.
Carl Perkins toured through the 1960’s, all the while drinking heavily. In 1968 he went on a four-day drinking binge and began hallucinating. It was then that he and Johnny Cash decided to support each other on the way to becoming sober.
In 1986, 54-year-old Carl returned to Sun Studios with Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison. There they recorded the album “Class of ’55” which was a nostalgic tribute to their early years at Sun.
The following year, Carl Perkins was inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. He was also inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in Jackson, TN.
Mr. Perkin’s last album was released in 1996 and entitled “Go Cat Go”. It features duets with such artists as Bono, Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson and Tom Petty.
On January 19, 1998, Mr. Perkins died at the age of 65. His cause of death is listed as throat cancer, although in addition he had suffered several strokes shortly before his death.
Carl Perkins was The King of Rockabilly. But he was also a great American. He was an advocate against Child Abuse, an author, and a father. He and his wife Valda had three sons and a daughter, one of the sons who followed in his father’s footsteps and became a musician.
Alright, here’s the part where I take off my reading glasses and give my two cents. Until 2017, I had personally never heard of Carl Perkins. I think that’s a shame, but considering the generation I’m from, it’s not shocking. However, when I first heard Carl’s version of “Blue Suede Shoes”, I immediately recognized greatness. I was surprised to find out that he wrote both “Blue Suede” and “Honey Don’t”, two songs I previously only associated with Elvis Presley. I was surprised that I had never heard of Carl Perkins, the very King of Rockabilly himself.
I only just recently began my journey into Rock n Roll’s past and it has been filled with amazing discoveries, forgotten gems and pleasant surprises. Carl Perkins is one of those gems, underrated in a sense, yet coveted by those who know the true history of music’s roots… and I’m learning… few could play, sing and write music the way Mr. Perkins did. Few ever will. He was a true gift to those of us who appreciate the exciting junction of which Rock and Country meet to produce one of the greatest musical genres the world has ever known.
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