Riding the Steel Breeze
- Nov 3, 2006
- Reaction score
- Redford, MI
Carl Lee Perkins (April 9, 1932 – January 19, 1998) was an American rockabilly musician who recorded most notably at Sun Records Studio in Memphis, Tennessee, beginning during 1954. His best known song is "Blue Suede Shoes".
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 cemented his place in the history of popular music. Paul McCartney even 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, the Rockabilly, and the Nashville Songwriters Halls of Fame; and was a Grammy Hall of Fame Award recipient.
Perkins was the son of poor sharecroppers, Buck and Louise Perkins (misspelled on his birth certificate as "Perkings") near Tiptonville, Tennessee. He grew up hearing Southern gospel music sung by whites in church, and by black 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 fields. During the summer, workdays were 12–14 hours, "from can to can't." Carl 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 Carl's father Buck, and occasionally the luxury of a five-cent bag of hard candy.
During Saturday nights Carl 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, so Carl's 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 Carl 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.
Carl began learning more about playing his guitar from a fellow field worker named John Westbrook who befriended him. "Uncle John," as Carl called him, was an African American in his sixties who played blues and gospel on his battered acoustic guitar. Most famously, "Uncle John" advised Carl 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 Carl 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."
Carl was recruited to be a member of the Lake County Fourth Grade Marching Band, and because of the Perkins's 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 Carl 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, 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).
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 some twelve miles south of Jackson, starting on Wednesday nights during late 1946. Carl was only 14 years old. One of the songs they played was an uptempo, 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 Carl 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, including El Rancho, The Roadside Inn, and the Hilltop around Bemis and Jackson as they became well known. Carl persuaded his brother Clayton to play the bass fiddle to complete the sound of the band.
Perkins began performing regularly on WTJS-AM in Jackson during the late 1940s as a sometime member of the Tennessee Ramblers. He also appeared on Hayloft Frolic where 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. Overwhelmingly 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, working first at picking cotton, then at Day's Dairy in Malesus, then at a mattress factory and in a battery plant. He then worked as a pan greaser for the Colonial Baking Company from 1951 through 1952.
During January 1953, Perkins married a woman he had known for a number of years, Valda Crider. When his job at the bakery was reduced to part-time, Valda, who had her own job, encouraged Carl to begin working the taverns full-time. He began playing six nights a week. Late the same year he added W.S. "Fluke" Holland to the band as a drummer, who had not any previous experience as a musician but had a good sense of rhythm.
Malcolm Yelvington remembered the Perkins brothers from 1953 when they played in Covington, Tennessee. He noted that Carl had a very unusual blues-like style all his own. By 1955 Carl had made tapes of his material with a borrowed tape recorder, and had sent them to companies such as Columbia and RCA with addresses such as "Columbia Records, New York City." "I had sent tapes to RCA and Columbia and had never heard a thing from 'em."
During 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 and Valda told Carl that someone in Memphis understood what he was doing and he should go see him. Later, Presley told Perkins that he had traveled to Jackson and seen Perkins and his group playing at El Rancho. As "Blue Moon of Kentucky faded out, Carl said, "There's a man in Memphis who understands what we're doing. I need to go see him."
Years later fellow 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) March 19, 1955, with "Turn Around" becoming 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, Corinth and Tupelo, Mississippi. Again performing at El Rancho, the Perkins brothers were involved in an automobile accident. 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.