Well, we’re getting close to the end of the beginning here at WMMCM in our Curds and Whey Cool adventure to those very early days of rock n’ roll. There’s just no way we could not bring up the guy who was never really a star until long after the music that he had so much to do with starting had moved on to greener pastures.
In the mid 50′s when that small group of musicians and singers who would start rock n’ roll’s ball moving down the road, every one of them had been listening to a young man from Tennessee who played his guitar pretty good. The young man had already been a performer for many years having started to play professionally at the age of 14, first with his brothers and then with the Tennessee Ramblers until he found himself performing on the radio at Jackson’s WTJS.
A few years later another young Tennessean had wandered into Sam Phillip’s recording studio and recorded a version of Bluegrass legend Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Then a funny thing happened. When Elvis and his band finished their version of the Monroe song, Elvis said that it sounded just like Carl Perkins. Once Elvis’ single started to get some airplay Perkins heard the new song and said that there was someone in Memphis that understood what he was doing and so off to Memphis he went. Straight to Sam Phillips studio.
With the release of Carl Perkin’s “Turn Around,” Perkins had his first minor hit and would soon find himself on the Sun road tour with Elvis and very soon, a young Johnny Cash. Sometime towards the end of 1955 Perkins and Cash had been playing on the Luisiana Hayride tour and Cash had recounted how a young man he had met while serving in the Air Force in Germany was overly protective of his brand new pair of shoes. Cash told Perkins, why not write a song about it.
With the release of Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” in January 1956 he would have his first number one hit which also brought him nearly instant stardom. It wouldn’t last.
While touring to support his major hit, Perkins was seriously injured in a car crash and couldn’t perform for a month while recovering. Fatefully, it was the wrong month to be out of the game. Elvis Presley had recorded his own version of Perkins song and was soon performing it on live television. The impact of a young and flambouyant Elvis on television in 1956 was staggering. Even though Perkins had his number one hit that he wrote – while also selling over a million copies – it was Elvis that people remembered.
The two men were friends and remained so but the thunder for Perkins was gone. That’s not to say that Perkins went away. Far from it. Perkins would continue to write and perform for the rest of his life but he never escaped the shadow of Elvis.
After Perkins had recovered and started to release new material he stayed firmly where he had been musically. Not a bad thing at all as Carl Perkins is credited as The King of Rockabilly music. That blend of country, western swing, blues and boogie-woogie that served as the foundation of rock n’ roll. Carl Perkins and his rockabilly served as an inspiration to Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and a few years later, The Beatles.
Over twenty five years after his hit with “Blue Suede Shoes” there would be yet another revisiting of Perkins’ music when a young American band couldn’t get anyone to pay attention to them in the U.S. so they went over to England smack in the middle of the punk movement and soon returned to their homeland as major stars.
Through the years after the success of “Blue Seude Shoes” Perkins kept writing and perfoming and became friends with many of those who followed him, quite notably The Beatles and Eric Clapton. He would return to the charts many times over the years even having a minor hit in 1987 with the single “Class of 55′” but only as a “country” artist.
In 1998 Carl Perkins would end right back where he started. He died at his home in Jackson, Tennessee where he started his career in the 1940′s. At Perkins’ funeral there was a complete representation of where he had been musically over his lifetime. Garth Brooks, George Harrison, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Wynona Judd were there.
Country music may have adopted Carl Perkins over the years but, Perkins rockabilly and guitar style inspired everyone who came after him.