“Sometimes I can sing it when I can’t say it.” — Carl Perkins

“The music was new, the kids were just eatin’ it up. They were claiming it as their own music. But I really think when the kids were comin’ to the sock hops and to the rock and roll shows, I really sincerely believe that mom and dad was home tryin’ to learn how to jitterbug to those same records. I never really thought that the kids were buyin’ all of those millions of records back then and I think time has proven that the older folks like it too. They just kind of rebelled against it a little bit because they first said it was bad music, they said it would entice our teenagers wrong, but it really wasn’t. It was music that made you feel good. They danced to it and I think time has proven that it was worth recording because it’s still around and never did leave.” — Carl Perkins

It’s Carl Perkins’ birthday today.

The guys who “created” rockabilly for the most part created it at Sun Studio – although there was definitely something “in the air”, in general. Sun Studio was just the place that devoted its energies to expressing it, whatever “it” was. There are multiple factors behind Sun’s supremacy in the rockabilly rise … mostly Sam Phillips, although I would put Marion Keisker in the pantheon as well (too often she is left out. Thank you, Baz Luhrmann, for recognizing her and including her!) One of the common denominators at Sun was economic hardship. This music was not made by people who had “enough” in any way, shape, or form. Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins … the Big Four, were all sons of sharecroppers, they spent their earliest years picking cotton, being hungry. Jerry Lee Lewis was shocked the first time he stayed in a motel. He had never been anywhere where the “outhouse” was inside. THAT’S “poor”. If you listen to all the early Sun tracks, no matter the artist, what you hear is economic want and hunger – hunger for validation/being seen and heard in an environment designed to ignore the needy – but also actual hunger. This actual hunger is a huge part of the sound – what we might even call “the Sun sound”, even beyond the slap-back echo (which no other studio could recreate, even with all the new-fangled bells and whistles).

There are stories about how Carl Perkins, who spent his youth picking cotton, learned to play guitar on a broom handle, and once he actually got a guitar, he could not afford new strings, so he would tie them and knot them if they broke. His distinct guitar styling was a result of him bending around the strings order to avoid the knot. The people who came after – who imitated Carl Perkins – could buy as many guitar strings as they wanted. But they wanted that bendy awesome sound, a sound borne from poverty.

Perkins loved country music and bluegrass, and he probably assumed that were he to “make it” as a musician, it’d be along those lines. But something else was stirring up “out there”. Things weren’t so clear-cut anymore. He formed a band with his brothers, and by the time they made the trek to Sun, they had years of experience playing out in really rough venues all over Tennessee, drunken honky tonks, where you had to be entertaining or get your face bashed in. When Elvis walked into Sun Records for the first time, he had zero stage experience, except for a couple of school talent contests. Carl Perkins walked in seasoned by his experience in front of the toughest drunkest crowds imaginable.

There was an “a-ha” moment for him, a moment where everything changed. Where he suddenly knew, he saw the way forward, he saw the way out. That moment was hearing Elvis Presley’s second single, “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, a country classic, made jangly and urgent and … weird … by this new kind of beat. (Nobody had a name for anything yet.) He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Who WAS this guy? Perkins, who had already been FEELING the new kind of beat, and performing it, suddenly knew “there were others”. I mean, it was that dramatic. And so he did what so many kids did in the wake of Elvis’ first couple of tracks: he packed up the car and went to Sun Records.

Perkins found his way to Sun while Elvis was still on the label (but soon to be scooped up by RCA). Sun couldn’t handle the strain of distribution once Elvis “hit”. Sam focused on finding new artists. These were controversial decisions, at the time, and now. Many artists felt abandoned by Sam Phillips post-Elvis. Black artists – the bread-and-butter of Sun Records from its earliest days – felt abandoned, and white artists felt shafted. Jerry Lee Lewis took up so much of Sam’s time and energy everyone else felt left out. Roy Orbison is a case study of this conflict. He was desperate to get out of his Sun contract. He didn’t feel taken care of. Johnny Cash had similar issues. Carl Perkins was the first in the new post-Elvis wave.

He was put on a tour with other Sun artists, including Elvis, so Perkins saw the Elvis Phenomenon up close and personal.

Carl Perkins and Elvis swapping autographs. 1956!

Scotty Moore told a funny story about introducing Elvis to Carl. The two men shook hands. Elvis walked away. Carl said immediately, “That’s the best-looking man I’ve ever seen before in my life.” lol You just HAD to acknowledge the WEIRDNESS of what was going on! Don’t hold back!

Unlike Elvis, Perkins wrote his own songs. His songs are filled with details, clothes and objects, colors and activities: You can see what he’s talking about. “Blue suede shoes”, amirite? Possessions matter when you don’t have anything. Threatening to bash someone’s face in for stepping on your shoes makes a little bit more sense if you know those are the first pair of shoes the person has actually owned. That they saved up for those stylish blue suede shoes. Middle-class people were always mistaking this kind of thing – Elvis’ obsession with Cadillacs, etc., all the focus on clothes – for “materialism”. You see the same thing happening with dismissive comments about “bling”, etc. It’s a pampered viewpoint from well-fed people.

Speaking of “blue suede shoes”:

Perkins recorded the song in December, 1955. The genesis of the song was maybe an anecdote he heard from Johnny Cash (also on that Sun package tour). By the time it was released, Elvis was at RCA, and his first single – “Heartbreak Hotel” – came out around the same time. Both songs were MASSIVE. “Heartbreak Hotel” went to #1 on the pop and country chart, but Carl’s “Blue Suede Shoes” beat him on the r&b charts. In between January and April, 1956, “Blue Suede Shoes” sold over a million copies. Everybody – Sam Phillips – everybody – was astonished. Even Elvis’ earliest songs had not generated this much money and recognition in their first releases. Elvis started out as a regional phenomenon. Carl went national immediately.

“Blue Suede Shoes” wasn’t just a hit in the States, it went to #1 in the UK too. The B-side was “Honey Don’t”, one of my favorite Carl Perkins’ songs. Sam Phillips went crazy trying to keep up with the demand (Sun Records was poor, even with the influx of cash from selling Elvis to RCA), and the demand for Carl’s song stretched everyone to the limit.

But some words on “Honey Don’t”. “You got that sand all over your feet.” Why? Has she been sleeping on the beach? Or is she a poor barefoot country girl? Either way, she’s a wild one! He can’t keep up. He’s begging her to calm down. And Perkins just moans about her, you can hear the yearning in his voice, the URGENCY. Those “uh – uh”s are hot. It’s sex. There’s a documentary called “Good Rockin’ Tonight”, where contemporary musicians went to Sun Records and record tracks from all the Sun artists. There was an album accompanying the doc. Ben Folds participated and he chose “Honey, Don’t.” At one point in the doc, Ben and his stand-up bass player talk to Jack Clement, the Sun Records engineer, an extremely important figure in establishing/maintaining the legendary “Sun sound”. Folds talked about why he wanted to record this particular song. It had to do with one chord change, a chord change seen as so weird at the time of its first recording people recoiled. It comes right after the first line of each verse. “Well, how can you say you will, when you won’t–” [controversial chord change]. Here’s the exchange:

Jack Clement: 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: 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.

And just for fun, here’s Ben Folds Five playing “Honey Don’t”:

Perkins was scheduled to make his national television debut on The Perry Como Show in March, 1956, but on his way there he got into a horrific car accident and almost died. (The guy in the other car DID die, and Carl’s brother fractured his neck and eventually died: that was how bad it was). Elvis, who had been performing his cover of “Blue Suede Shoes” in live shows (but held off on releasing it in respect to Carl) sent a note to Carl in the hospital asking if there was anything he could do to help. While Carl was in the hospital, “Blue Suede Shoes” went gold.

Meanwhile (there’s a lot of “meanwhile” in this story, since everything happened at the same time), Elvis started appearing on television, performing “Blue Suede Shoes”, among other things. He did hold off as long as he could. The song is still associated with Elvis, though, which does Carl a great disservice. What would have happened if Carl hadn’t gotten in that accident? It’s important to point out that Elvis’ version never charted as well as Carl Perkins’ original version. The song’s progress was like a fever burning: and with Carl’s version the fever was at its height. Elvis’ version happened while the fever was burning itself out.

By this point, “Blue Suede Shoes” had done what it was going to do on all the charts, and the furor had started to die down. And by this point, Elvis’ rise was the biggest story ever. He was selling millions of copies of songs that hadn’t even been released yet. This had never happened before. Things were getting very strange. So… when Carl made his appearance on The Perry Como Show in May, and performed “Blue Suede Shoes”, the perception was that Carl was following in Elvis’ blue suede shoes footsteps, when in reality it was the other way around. Time had sped up: just a couple months prior, everyone knew it was Carl’s song. But then Elvis arose and blotted out the sun. It was Carl’s song. He wrote it!! To this day, Elvis’ version is better known. And the versions are quite different. Carl’s version has a stop-start quality, adding to the sense of instability, uncertainty, a temper tantrum held in check, about to explode. Elvis’ is more straightforward, no stopping and starting, just a straight shot of aggression, spiked with that playful irony Elvis had in him from the jump. Elvis also was not drinking “liquor from an old fruit jar”. He drank milkshakes at the roller rink. I mean, no shade, but let’s just be honest about this!

I prefer Carl’s version of the song. His “Go, cat, go!!” still leaps out of the speakers (and it’s the title of his wonderful autobiography). Carl viewed his improvised shout as a mistake during the recording: he wasn’t supposed to say “cat”, that was not what he wrote. Phillips told him they’d leave it in. Perkins describes all the little mistakes in the recording, things he would mention to Phillips: “But Mr. Phillips, I messed up the words… ” Sam was like, “The energy in what matters. This is a DIFFERENT record.” (“Different” was his highest praise.)

The story of “Blue Suede Shoes” is one of the most important stories in 20th century American music because it represented the real crossover break-through, something already anticipated a decade before by Hank Williams who “broke out” of Nashville into a larger audience in a way that had not happened with country “hillbilly” stars before, and building and building, representing a cultural sea-change made possible by stronger radio signals bringing local artists to a national audience. Crossover was starting, with artists like Rufus Thomas, whose “Bear Cat” – an “answer” to Elvis’ “Hound Dog” – was the first hit on the Sun label, and other r&b guys making inroads into national charts. And then Elvis Presley. Little Richard said that his songs were never played on mainstream radio until “after Elvis.” He gave Elvis credit for that, albeit grudging credit. Rhythm and blues – once seen as a style played strictly on “race” stations, and known as “race music”, for a black audience, went mainstream. And so r&b BECAME pop music (in the same way that hip hop would basically de-throne rock ‘n roll and BECOME pop music, 40 years later).

Elvis never claimed he “got there first” and gave credit to the artists who inspired him, gospel, country and rhythm and blues – he never called himself “the King”, at one press conference in 1969, pulling Fats Domino forward and saying to the gathered reporters, “This here is the real King of rock ‘n roll.” But it can’t be denied Elvis brought this music into the white mainstream.

It needed to happen. And you needed a figure who could make that happen. It was a confusing time. Nothing was foreordained. Everything seemed to exist in a yearning: a yearning that something would break, something would start to coalesce, that r&b – as important to American culture as country music – as well as the gospel-style that was so important to this kind of music as well as the vibrant rambunctious culture existing outside of Patti Page and Frankie Laine – would start to flow into the mainstream. It was time, dammit. Get us out of this middle-class safe strangelhold.

Sam Phillips had had small hits with his Black artists but there seemed to be a “ceiling” to how many records those artists sold, since radio stations were scared of the sound, and nobody was buying, outside of the population already buying those records.

Finally, all that changed. Little Richard, and other geniuses, rushed through the door blasted open by Elvis. Elvis’ RCA stuff, and earlier stuff like “Baby Let’s Play House”, were national hits climbing the charts. “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel” competed with each OTHER on every single chart in the spring of 1956. (Nashville was pissed. Their entire Billboard chart was filled with Elvis singles.)

But Carl’s “Blue Suede Shoes” got there first.

Here’s Perkins performing “Blue Suede Shoes” on The Perry Como Show in May 1956, when he was finally out of the hospital.

Carl Perkins lived long enough to become a luminary in the music world. He collaborated with everyone. But he never caught the flame of what he initially started. How on earth could three months in the hospital make such a terrible difference? There were other factors at play. Elvis had “it”, that otherworldly thing going on, which nobody could predict or imitate. Only Elvis could be Elvis. But Perkins deserved more. Unfortunately, 1956 America had room for only one artist. It’s unfair. But again, how could you predict something like Elvis? Perkins eventually developed other issues. He was a massive alcoholic: his description of the DTs he went through when he quit are horrific. He came back strong, and never stopped. He was a regular figure on tour, and everyone – every one who came after – who were influenced and inspired by him as kids to pick up a guitar, and try to play like he did – Paul McCartney and John Lennon and Eric Clapton and all the rest – paid tribute.

He lived long enough to feel the impact he had.

This 1985 concert is a JAM with Eric Clapton, George Harrison, a basic DRUM LINE, a stand-up bass, jitterbugging people and an incredibly full and rich sound:

I adore this: Jerry Lee Lewis, Jackie Wilson, Carl Perkins, and Linda Gail Lewis, performing “This Land Is Your Land” from the pilot of the never-produced Jerry Lee Lewis Show. What a lineup. They should have had two microphones, dammit.

Another great concert – with Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton and Perkins:

And finally this. Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash, the so-called “Class of 55”. Performed in 1977, right after Elvis’ death.

Look at that glorious line-up of blinged-out DUDES.

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