Carl Perkins’ “Honey Don’t”: The Chord Change That Shook the World

Below is an exchange from the documentary “Good Rockin’ Tonight.” The documentary was a bit of a gimmick – at least Sam Phillips, guru of Sun Records saw it that way, but it’s very entertaining. It’s a celebration of Sam Phillips and Sun Records, and it features interviews with many of the Sun artists (Rufus Thomas, Billy Lee Riley, Scotty Moore, Sonny Burgess), and the “gimmick” part of it features current artists (Robert Plant, Rob Thomas, Paul McCartney, Third Eye Blind) recording songs made famous by the artists at Sun. So Paul McCartney recorded Elvis’ first song “That’s All Right.” Robert Plant recorded “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,” and on and on. Ben Folds chose Carl Perkins’ great song “Honey, Don’t.” “Honey Don’t” was written by Carl Perkins, and first recorded by him in 1955 – clip above – and, of course later it was recorded by The Beatles.

In the exchange below, Ben Folds talks to Jack Clement, the Sun Records engineer, about Carl Perkins’ song “Honey, Don’t,” the song Ben Folds had decided to record for the documentary. And why Ben Folds wanted to do it had to do with that one chord change (that comes after each line: “How come you say you will when you won’t” – ka-boom), the chord change that still gives the song an electric pop, a chord change seen as so weird at the time that people were actually afraid of it. What did it mean? Could you just … do that?

Jack Clement, Sun Engineer: I like that song. I was at Sun when ol’ Carl [Perkins] cut that. Sam [Phillips] was running the board. I hadn’t been there all that long. But I was there and I remember that song real well. I always liked that funny chord change in it.

Ben Folds: Yeah.

Jack: What key is that it in?

Ben: It’s in E. It goes from E to a C.

Jack: It goes to C. Right.

[Ben Folds demonstrates the chord change from E to C.]

Jack: That’s an ear-grabber, you know? I do remember everybody was excited about that song and they all liked that change from E to C.

Ben: That’s basically why I wanted to play it. It was kind of unusual for that time, I think. That’s a strange … It’s weird for now. Cool chords.

Robert Sledge, standup bass player: It’s an awesome song.

Ben Folds: Yeah, it’s a great song.

[Robert Sledge demonstrates the chord change in question.]

Robert: In an interview I heard that [Carl’s] guitar player said, ‘Man, you can’t do that. It’s just not right.” And Carl said, “I can do it.” The guitar player said, “It’s just not right. I don’t know if I want to play that.” And he did it anyway and made history. And it just goes to show you you’ve got to take some chances.

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4 Responses to Carl Perkins’ “Honey Don’t”: The Chord Change That Shook the World

  1. Jessie says:

    I love this post and everything it stands for! The thing I regret most about being too lazy to keep learning bass guitar is my present lack of musical theory. This is a great song. I love when the chord change reappears in the guitar solo (it’s a shame Folds can’t quite get the volume on the piano solo. I suspect it’s because he didn’t yell rockin’ encouragement to himself).

    • sheila says:

      Isn’t it all so interesting?

      // I suspect it’s because he didn’t yell rockin’ encouragement to himself //

      Jessie, it is so funny that you say that. There are a couple of different “takes” of the song that they did while recording – but the only one on iTunes is a different one from the one on Youtube in the post. I prefer the iTunes one – and during the piano solo, he gets so carried away he yells, “I WANT TO RAPE SOMEBODY.”

      … which clearly he doesn’t actually mean but rock ‘n’ roll makes you feel like that, and it’s actually pretty funny to see that mild-mannered baldish guy become a Caveman. Go, Carl Perkins.

      And that version truly JANGLES out of the speakers with ferocious energy.

      I imagine, though, the “I want to rape somebody” encouragement is why the Youtube clip here is the one that has gained traction. Just guessing.

      // The thing I regret most about being too lazy to keep learning bass guitar is my present lack of musical theory. //

      I know nothing about music theory and value so much people who do. My cousin Liam, who has his own band, and has been studying rock ‘n’ roll and the blues since he was 10 years old or before – knows all this stuff – and when I posted this link on FB he was like, “Yeah. That chord change is insane.” He came out with a song recently and I told him, “The chord change in the opening gives me goosebumps.” And he rattled off, “Yeah, that chord change has a really interesting history – it first showed up in blah-blah-blah and then so-and-so took it up … and it’s always been my favorite chord change …”

      It was so funny and so perfect.

      • Jessie says:

        Wow, that’s crazy about the iTunes version! How interesting! Bet he never thought he’d be yelling that sentence.

        Hanging out with your cousin Liam is now on my bucket list!

        • sheila says:

          // Bet he never thought he’d be yelling that sentence. //

          Right? He was so in the zone that when he heard playback he might have been like, “Okay, so this can never get out.”

          But I like that version better.

          Liam is awesome. He wrote two essays for my site years ago about The Kinks (his obsession knows no bounds – he was babbling to me about them at an O’Malley Party and I was like, “Listen, you need to write all this down.”). I’ll see if I can track them down.

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