One of the architects of rock & roll, Carl Perkins is best known as the writer and original singer of the rockabilly anthem “Blue Suede Shoes” (#2, 1956). Along with Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins was one of the seminal rockabilly artists on Sam Phillips’ Sun label, but a series of bad breaks, followed by personal problems, undermined his solo career. Despite that, Perkins persevered, creating a body of work that has been both critically acclaimed and extremely influential on songwriters, guitar players, and singers alike.
Perkins grew up poor in a sharecropping family that picked cotton in various northwestern Tennessee fields around Tiptonville. Perkins was first put to work at age six, and it was in the fields that he first heard gospel songs. At night, he heard hillbilly country and Delta blues over the family radio. An older, black field hand befriended Perkins and taught him to play guitar; by age 10 Perkins was entertaining his classmates. He made his radio debut with his school band, singing “Home on the Range.”
He kicked off his musical career in the mid-1940s, performing at local dances with his brothers Jay and Clayton as the Perkins Brothers Band. In 1953 drummer W.S. “Fluke” Holland joined. The next year, after hearing Presley’s debut Sun single, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” (a Bill Monroe song Perkins and his group had been playing since 1949), Perkins and his brothers drove to Memphis to audition for Phillips. Shortly thereafter, they signed to the label and released Perkins’ first single, “Movie Magg” (a song Perkins wrote at age 13) b/w “Turn Around.” In early 1955 came “Let the Jukebox Keep On Playing” b/w “Gone Gone Gone.” Perkins’ biggest hit came in late 1956. “Blue Suede Shoes” was an instant smash and made Perkins the first white country artist to cross over to the R&B chart as well. A country, pop, and R&B hit, “Blue Suede Shoes” alternated with Elvis Presley’s first post-Sun single, “Heartbreak Hotel,” for the top spots on national and regional charts. (Shortly thereafter, Presley issued his “Blue Suede Shoes”; over time, Perkins’ original sold more copies.)
Perkins was at the height of his career when tragedy struck. He and his group were driving to New York to appear on Perry Como’s television program when their driver fell asleep at the wheel, causing the car to hit the back of a truck before plunging into water. The driver was killed, and Carl and his brother Jay were seriously injured. Although Perkins was back on the road in about a month, Jay never fully recovered and was later diagnosed with a brain tumor, from which he died in 1958. Years later, Perkins admitted that he used his brother’s death as a reason to drink. A quiet, self-effacing man, Perkins later observed, “I felt out of place when ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ was Number One. I stood on the Steel Pier in 1956 in Atlantic City…. and the Goodyear blimp flew over with my name in big lights. And I stood there and shook and actually cried. That should have been something that would elevate a guy to say, ‘Well, I’ve made it.’ But it put fear in me.”
In early 1958 Perkins moved to Columbia Records, where he recorded several more minor rockabilly hits, but by the early ’60s, he’d hit a low point. On a British tour in 1964, Perkins was surprised to learn that the Beatles admired him and that George Harrison taught himself to play guitar by copying Perkins’ records. Perkins became friendly with the Beatles and oversaw the sessions where they recorded five of his songs —”Matchbox,” “Honey Don’t,” “Your True Love,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” and “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby.” Rick Nelson, Johnny Burnette, and Patsy Cline, among others, also covered his songs. Like many other rockabilly artists, Perkins turned to country material as the rockabilly trend died, and by 1965 he was part of Johnny Cash’s touring troupe. In 1968 he wrote the huge hit for Cash, “Daddy Sang Bass” (#1, 1969). When Cash got his national television show in 1969, Perkins became a regular guest, and he toured and recorded with Cash as well.
As a solo artist, Perkins cut some country records and recorded an album with NRBQ. After the Cash show ended, he toured as Johnny’s guitarist until 1975. He then formed the C.P. Express with his sons Greg and Stan, and started his own label, Suede, on which he released two albums (The Carl Perkins Show and Carl Perkins Live at Austin City Limits). In late 1978 Perkins released a basic rock & roll LP called Ol’ Blue Suede’s Back, which sold 100,000 copies in England. In 1981 he did some sessions for Paul McCartney’s Tug of War; in early 1982, an album entitled Survivors, recorded live in Germany with Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, was released. Three years later Lewis, Cash, and Orbison were reunited for The Class of ’55, a special event that included such Perkins disciples as John Fogerty and Rick Nelson.
Through the years, Perkins continued to record and write. He cowrote the Judds’ 1989 hit “Let Me Tell You About Love,” on which he played lead guitar. In 1992 Dolly Parton had a C&W hit with a song Perkins wrote for her, “Silver and Gold.” In 1992 Perkins was diagnosed with throat cancer; following treatment, he was declared cancer-free a year later, and kept writing and recording. He owned two Jackson, Tennessee, restaurants; one, Suede’s, is filled with his career memorabilia. In 1981 he founded the Carl Perkins Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Perkins’ 1996 album, Go, Cat, Go! featured Willie Nelson, John Fogerty, Paul Simon, and Tom Petty. His authorized biography, Go, Cat, Go! The Life and Times of Carl Perkins, the King of Rockabilly, by David McGee, was published in 1994. Perkins suffered a series of strokes and died in 1998.