Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


PERKINS, Carl (rockabilly)

(b Carl Lee Perkings, 9 April 1932, Tiptonville TN; d 19 January 1998, Nashville) Singer, guitarist, songwriter: the quintessential rockabilly, influencing a generation of rock'n'rollers including the Beatles. He grew up listening to black blues, country and gospel music; learned guitar at an early age, won a local talent contest playing and singing his own 'Movie Magg' at 13. He formed the Perkins Brothers with Jay (d 1958) and Clayton (d 1974), played at local honky tonk the El Rancho Club '47-8, appeared on radio WDXT in Jackson TN '50-2; worked days in a bakery for years.

He signed with Sun subsidiary Flip in Memphis in 1954; first release was 'Movie Magg' '55, followed by 'Let The Juke Box Keep Playing' and 'Gone, Gone, Gone'. Then he hit the jackpot with 'Blue Suede Shoes' '56. According to Robert Hillburn's biography of Johnny Cash (2013), when Cash was in the USAF stationed in Landsberg Germany, his buddy C.V. Wright, who was a sharp dresser, said jokingly 'Don't step on my blue suede shoes'; Cash told the story to Perkins in the fall of 1955 when they were touring together for Sun, giving Perkins an idea for a song. It was no. 2 in Billboard pop and country charts (no. 1 in Cashbox), but on the way to NYC to appear on the Ed Sullivan and Perry Como TV shows Perkins was badly injured in a car crash. Elvis Presley covered 'Blue Suede Shoes' and Perkins's career never recovered its pop momentum. 'Boppin' The Blues', 'Your True Love' and 'Dixie Fried' were top ten country hits '56-7, the first two minor pop hits. Presley's early records were classic rock'n'roll, tougher and with a suggestion of a snarl, but Perkins was a truer rockabilly, never losing the flavour of the Saturday-night country dance: 'Blue Suede Shoes' was heard as a novelty, but Perkins's country boy knows he will be back behind the plow on Monday; the shoes are all he's got and he's not complaining, just please don't step on 'em. 'Honey Don't' was intended to be the A-side of the big hit; many a middle-class American teenager found 'Honey Don't' to be too country. But by the time 'Honey Don't' was covered by the Beatles (along with 'Matchbox' and 'Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby') the contribution of country boys (and blacks, both urban and country) had entered the mainstream.

Perkins moved to Columbia '58 for minor pop hits 'Pink Pedal Pushers' and 'Pointed Toe Shoes' '58-9; went back to country music, signing with Dollie '63 for minor country hits 'Country Boy's Dream' and 'Shine, Shine' '66-7, joined the Johnny Cash road show '65-75, lending his guitar wizardry, doing his own solo spots and providing Cash with big hit 'Daddy Sang Bass' '68, the year he returned to Columbia for country hits 'Restless', 'Cotton Top', 'High On Love' '69-72, then to Mercury with remake of 'Dixie Fried' '73. He gained a whole new following mid-'70s in UK with appearances at the Wembley Festival, TV-advertised album Old Blue Suede Shoes Is Back '77 on Jet. In the USA he worked with a five-piece band including sons Gregg and Stan, recorded for his own appropriately named Suede label. Reissues and compilations on Rhino, Columbia, Rounder etc; The Million Dollar Quartet was long a bootleg, with Perkins, Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis fooling around in the studio (Cash had left); The Trio Plus had Lewis, Charlie Rich and friends. Many other original albums included Whole Lotta Shakin' '59, On Top '71, The Man Behind Johnny Cash '73, The Survivors '82 (with Cash and Lewis), all on Columbia; My Kind Of Country '74 on Mercury; Live At Austin City Limits '82 on Suede, That Rockin' Guitar Man Today '83 and Goin' Back To Memphis '86 on Magnum Force, Class Of '55 '86 on America/Smash (with Cash, Lewis, Roy Orbison). Go, Cat, Go '96 on Dinosaur Entertainment was a celebration, guests including three Beatles, Johnny Cash, Paul Simon, Tom Petty, Willie Nelson etc etc. Go, Cat, Go! '97 was also a candid autobiography (with David McGee) of one of the few people in country music who had no enemies.