Carl Lee Perkins was born in the small town of Tiptonville, Tennessee in April of 1932 at the height of the Great Depression. Located in farming country near the Northwestern-most corner of the state, Perkins went to work in the cotton fields alongside his sharecropping family when he was just six years old. He would befriend a local, African-American laborer who would teach Carl his first chords on the guitar and that…well, that would change everything.
After WWII, Perkins was just 14 when he and his brother Jay began playing every barn dance, roadside tavern and honky-tonk they could book. By the end of the 40s, the Perkins family had moved closer to music’s melting pot; Memphis, Tennessee. Carl had also recruited his younger brother, Clayton to play stand-up bass and their style of up-tempo country music made the Perkins Brothers a very popular regional draw.
“With guys like Elvis, Jerry Lee, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich…and you know, we didn’t really know what we were doing. But we knew there was something in the music…that the kids were getting up and knocking dust out of them old gymnasium floors.” —-Carl Perkins
Working outside jobs to survive, Carl was writing more and in 1955 signed a record deal with a subsidiary of the Sun label; Flip Records. When you recorded and released a record in the 50s, you immediately hit the road to play ‘live’ in support of it. It was while touring with Sun label – mates Elvis and Johnny Cash, that a young Carl Perkins overheard a conversation from the stage that would inspire him to write, ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ the first million-selling record for the Memphis Recording Service and Sun Records.
Back in the 1980s, I was given the opportunity to sit and talk with Carl after a festival show in Southern California; the band, which included two of his sons, was tight and Perkins couldn’t get the smile off his face. After the applause died away and he sat down to catch his breath, we started with current events. After all these years, that crowd reaction must feel really good. “I started recording in 1954.” Perkins smiles. “And have been trying to make a living out of it now for way over 40 years. You know, really when you’re out there and you look around and your kids are smiling at you and your good friends that work with you and the audience is going… Man, I don’t know how old I am. I’ll put the liniment on when the thing’s over.” (laughing) “That’s the way it goes.”
It’s not every day you get to sit next to one of the members of the ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ much less ask them questions. Not only were you in the right place at exactly the right time; you were literally in the delivery room for the birth of Rock n’ Roll. “I look back now and realize that I am a very fortunate man to have been there when the creation of Rock n’ Roll music was taking place. With guys like Elvis, Jerry Lee, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich…and you know, we didn’t really know what we were doing. We were doing what we liked to do, and we noticed that the country audiences who we were playing for and we played with the Grand Ole Opry guys; Hank Snow, Eddie Arnold, people like that. But we knew there was something in the music…that the kids were getting up and knocking dust out of them old gymnasium floors. We felt good about it and I always have. I never felt that our music contributed to the delinquency of the youth of America. I think looking back, it was so innocent and it was a good time, man. The fifties… it was a great period and some of the greatest talent in the whole world.”
Why do you think your music connected to people the way it did? “It was innocent, it made you feel good. I always felt that if my music caused that working man or woman out there, that Mr. and Mrs. America, if it caused them to forget about a car payment or a house note, if it was only for a two and half minute record then there was something about it…that wasn’t bad. And that’s what it does, how are you gonna’ worry about payin’ a phone bill if you’re…” (Carl breaks into song) “Wop-Bop-a-Lou-Bop-a-Lop-Bam-Boom Tutti Frutti! It makes you feel good.”
You can say the same about ‘Blue Suede Shoes.’ “That was the first million-selling record on Sun Records, sure was. I was playing a club in my hometown. I heard a boy say that to a girl one night, a beautiful girl and they were dancing right in front of the little bandstand. I was living in a government project house at the time and I had two small children. I didn’t own a pair of the shoes, but they were getting popular in Jackson, Tennessee where I lived down around Memphis. If you saw a fella’ with a pair of them on, it’s what they called a ‘cool cat.’ And this dude did have on a pair and he told the pretty girl; ‘Un-uh, don’t step on my suede’s.’ I don’t know if it made me mad or it hurt me because she was hurt. But she said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ And I couldn’t get her out of my mind. I went home to the projects and I couldn’t go to sleep… ‘do anything, but don’t step on my blue suede shoes. And I thought of the old nursery rhyme, ‘one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready and four to go.’ I said, ‘Whoa, that’s it!’ And I got up and I took three potatoes out of a brown paper sack and wrote ‘blue S-W-A-D-E shoes, I didn’t know how to spell it. I still think it oughta’ be S-W-A-D-E!” (laughing)
You’ve performed, written or toured with some of the most talented musicians on the planet; everybody from the Judd’s to Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, just incredible. Tell us a little about your friend, Chuck Berry? “I was talking to somebody the other day, back in ’56 I did a tour with Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Fats Domino. It was called the ‘Stars of ’56’ and I remember it so vividly now, that being the first artist on Sun to sell a million records, Sam Phillips, the guy who owned the label gave me a new Fleetwood Cadillac and Chuck wanted to ride in it with me. I said, ‘Sure man!’ Many mornings we would leave a hotel going to another town, he’d say, ‘Hey Carl, I started me one last night…how this go, ah ‘flying across the desert in a TWA, I seen a woman walking across the sand.’ I said, ‘Oh man, that’s great!’ Then the next day he said, ‘I finished it’ and he’d sing it and then out would come the record. This man has written…I think he’s the Shakespeare of Rock n’ Roll music, I really do. If you tear the tune away from his songs, you still got beautiful poetry, man. ‘Two men out in the bottom of the third, there was a high fly into the stands, around third base he was struttin’ for home, it was a brown-eyed handsome man.’ You can’t top it, you know?” (laughing)
Perkins’ music has been an influence to almost every major artist of the past 60 years from the Beatles and the Stray Cats to Ricky Nelson and U2. His songs have been recorded by everyone from Elvis and Jimi Hendrix to Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline. “A few days ago I was at home and the phone rang and my wife says, ‘Carl, it’s George Harrison.’ I said, ‘Thee George Harrison?’ She says, ‘Yeah. And he sure is nice.’ She had never met him or heard him talk. I got on the phone and sure enough it was…and he has asked me to play in London. George is having the tenth anniversary of his Handmade Film Company. He said I’ve invited all the people who have worked in my films; Madonna, gosh he mentioned so many great people, big stars…Faye Dunaway. And he said since I’m going to do that, I’m going to invite some of our people, too. He said Phil Collins will be there, Jeff Lynn, Eric Clapton…I said, ‘that’s enough, son! Don’t tell me anymore, I’m getting scared!”(laughing) “As it turned out, I’m scheduled to be in Norway and Sweden, I start a tour over there the 12th. Let me call you back tomorrow. So I called the promoter and told him about it…so George is sending a jet to Norway the morning of the 23rd; we’ll do that and then fly back to Sweden and do four more days. And I’m doing the promoter an extra day to get to do it.
I know this maybe the highlight of my career. I spoke to George about filming it and I’m in the process of putting me an HBO Special together, another one, you know? I did a thing for CINEMAX, which is owned by HBO. George was on that, Ringo and other people, so he told me on the phone, ‘let’s just tape it, let’s film it and go for it.’ He said I’m gonna’ have three or four musicians on the show and after you do your performance would it be alright if some of us start coming up there…? Oh, God! It probably could turn out to be a very, very big thing. I’m excited!”
Carl Perkins with George Harrison -1985 ‘Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby
As you look back on how far you’ve come and the music you’ve created…the people you’ve influenced…any life lessons you can share? “I’ll tell you and I’m very sincere. It’s a very humbling thing for me to every once in a while realize they may be telling me the truth when they say, ‘Carl, I was listening to you play on ‘Matchbox’ and ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and I decided that’s what I want to do.’ I’ve been so fortunate; the Good Lord has come a long way with this old man, I started with my two brothers and now two of my sons are out there with me. I tell you, music…I often say from the stage, ‘You don’t grow old if you like Rock n’ Roll, man. Just hit the beat and GO!” (laughing)
Perkins battled lung and throat cancer in the early 90s, and like every other challenge in his life, he fought through it. But complications from multiple strokes ended his life in Jackson, Tennessee on January 19, 1998. The ‘King of Rockabilly’ was 65 years old.