According to Charlie Daniels, “Carl Perkins’ songs personified the rockabilly era, and Carl Perkins’ sound personifies the rockabilly sound more so than anybody involved in it, because he never changed.” Perkins’ songs were recorded by artists (and friends) as influential as Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Johnny Cash, which further established his place in the history of popular music. Paul McCartney claimed that “if there were no Carl Perkins, there would be no Beatles.”
Called “the King of Rockabilly”, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He also received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.
Perkins was born 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 white friends in church and by African-American field workers when he worked in the cotton fields at the age of six. During spring and autumn, school days would be followed by a few hours of work in the fields. In the summer, workdays were 12 to 14 hours, “from can to can’t.” Perkins and his brother Jay together would earn 50 cents a day. All his family members worked, so there was enough money for beans and potatoes, tobacco for Perkins’s father, and occasionally the luxury of a five-cent bag of hard candy.
On Saturday nights Perkins would listen to the Grand Ole Opry on his father’s radio. Roy Acuff’s broadcasts inspired him to ask his parents for a guitar. Since they could not afford one, his father made one from a cigar box and a broomstick. Finally, a neighbor in hard times offered to sell his dented and scratched Gene Autry model guitar with its worn-out strings. Buck Perkins bought it for his son for a couple of dollars.
Perkins taught himself parts of Acuff’s “Great Speckled Bird” and “The Wabash Cannonball”, having heard them played on the Opry. He also cited Bill Monroe’s fast playing and vocals as an early influence.
Perkins learned more about the guitar from John Westbrook, an African American field worker in his sixties. “Uncle John”, as Perkins called him, played blues and gospel music on an old acoustic guitar. Westbrook advised Perkins 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.” Perkins could not afford new strings, and when they broke he had to retie them. The knots cut his fingers when he would 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. Since his family was too poor to afford them, Lee McCutcheon, the woman in charge of the band, gave him a new white shirt, cotton pants, a white band cap and a red cape.
In January 1947, the Perkins family moved from Lake County, Tennessee, to Madison County, Tennessee. A new radio that ran on house current rather than a battery, and the closeness to Memphis exposed Perkins to a greater variety of music. At age fourteen, using the I-IV-V chord progression common in country music of the day, he wrote a song that 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).
Beginnings as a performer
Perkins and his brother Jay had their first paying job (in tips) as entertainers at the Cotton Boll tavern on Highway 45, twelve miles south of Jackson, starting on Wednesday nights during late 1946. Perkins was 14 years old. One of the songs they played was an up-tempo country blues shuffle version of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky”. Free drinks were one of the perks of playing in a tavern, and Perkins drank four beers that first night. Within a month Carl and Jay began playing Friday and Saturday nights at the Sand Ditch tavern, near the western boundary of Jackson. Both places were the scene of occasional fights, and both of the Perkins brothers gained a reputation as fighters.
During the next couple of years the Perkins brothers began playing other taverns around Bemis and Jackson, including El Rancho, the Roadside Inn, and the Hilltop, as they became better known. Carl persuaded his brother Clayton to play the upright bass to complete the sound of the band.
Perkins began performing regularly on WTJS in Jackson during the late 1940s as a sometime member of the Tennessee Ramblers. He also appeared on Hayloft Frolic, on which he performed two songs, sometimes including “Talking Blues” as done by Robert Lunn on the Grand Ole Opry. Perkins and then his brothers began appearing on The Early Morning Farm and Home Hour. Positive listener response resulted in a 15-minute segment sponsored by Mother’s Best Flour. By the end of the 1940s, the Perkins Brothers were the best-known band in the Jackson area.
Perkins had day jobs during most of these early years, picking cotton and later working at Day’s Dairy in Malesus, at a mattress factory and in a battery plant. He worked as a pan greaser for the Colonial Baking Company in 1951 and 1952.
In January 1953, Perkins married Valda Crider, whom he had known for a number of years. When his job at the bakery was reduced to part-time, Valda, who had her own job, encouraged Perkins to begin working the taverns full-time. He began playing six nights a week. Later the same year he added W.S. “Fluke” Holland to the band as a drummer. Halder had no previous experience as a musician but had a good sense of rhythm.
Malcolm Yelvington, who remembered the Perkins Brothers when they played in Covington, Tennessee, in 1953, noted that Carl had a very unusual blues-like style all his own. By 1955 Perkins had made tapes of his material with a borrowed tape recorder, and he sent them to companies such as Columbia and RCA, with addresses like “Columbia Records, New York City”. “I had sent tapes to RCA and Columbia and had never heard a thing from ’em.”
In July 1954, Perkins and his wife heard a new release of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” by Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore and Bill Black on the radio. As the song faded out, Perkins said, “There’s a man in Memphis who understands what we’re doing. I need to go see him.” According to another telling of the story, it was Valda who told him that he should go to Memphis. Later, Presley told Perkins that he had traveled to Jackson and seen Perkins and his group playing at El Rancho.
Years later the musician Gene Vincent told an interviewer that, rather than “Blue Moon of Kentucky” being a “new sound”, “a lot of people were doing it before that, especially Carl Perkins.”
Perkins successfully auditioned for Sam Phillips at Sun Records during early October 1954. “Movie Magg” and “Turn Around” were released on the Phillips-owned Flip label (151) on March 19, 1955. “Turn Around” became a regional success. With the song getting airplay across the South and Southwest, Perkins was booked to appear along with Elvis Presley at theaters in Marianna and West Memphis, Arkansas. Commenting on the audience reaction to both Presley and himself, Perkins said, “When I’d jump around they’d scream some, but they were gettin’ ready for him. It was like TNT, man, it just exploded. All of a sudden the world was wrapped up in rock.”
Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two were the next musicians to be added to the performances by Sun musicians. During the summer of 1955 there were junkets to Little Rock, Forrest City, Arkansas, and Corinth and Tupelo, Mississippi. Again performing at El Rancho, the Perkins brothers were involved in an automobile accident in Woodside, Delaware. A friend, who had been driving, was pinned by the steering wheel. Perkins managed to drag him from the car, which had begun burning. Clayton had been thrown from the car but was not injured seriously.
Another Perkins song, “Gone Gone Gone”, released by Sun in October 1955, was also a regional success. It was a “bounce blues in flavorsome combined country and r.&b. idioms”. It was backed by the more traditional “Let the Jukebox Keep On Playing”, complete with fiddle, “Western boogie” bass line, steel guitar and weepy vocal.
Commenting on Perkins’ playing, Sam Phillips has been quoted as saying, “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.”
Also in the autumn of 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 reached 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 reach No. 3 on the rhythm and blues charts. That night, Perkins performed the song on ABC-TV’s Ozark Jubilee, his television debut (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 hit, reaching No. 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.