“Carl Perkins, the man!” – Paul McCartney dedicating Blue Suede Shoes to him at Paul’s induction into the Rock Hall of Fame
Growing up in the poorest of surroundings, living in a shack and picking cotton, Carl Perkins learnt his guitar playing at source from other sharecroppers. It was here that he formed the basis of his later career as he first learnt and then mastered his rhythmic boogie style.
Carl formed his first group, with his brothers, while he was in his teens. The Perkins Brothers Band quickly became a favorite on the local circuit and gave Carl an opportunity to showcase his own songs and develop them depending on the reaction from the dancefloor. With his music merging country with a black rhythm and by refining his songs this while on stage Carl knew the music that would fill, or kill, a dancefloor.
Record executives however didn’t readily understand his music and the new style he was playing. Demos sent in to New York were rejected with the record companies not being able to see the commercial opportunity in this merger of music styles. There was one person who did understand the music however, Sam Phillips, and in 1954, after hearing Elvis on the radio and recognizing a kindred spirit, Carl took his band and they headed out to Sun Records.
While Phillips loved Carl’s singing and guitar playing he also recognized that he could write a good song. Within a matter of months Carl’s first single, the self-penned “Movie Magg”, was released. What Phillips didn’t understand however was the commercial opportunities with Carl’s rockabilly style; he insisted that Carl play hillbilly music so as not to detract from the ‘limited audience’ that was following Elvis. In fact it was only when Elvis moved to RCA Victor at the end of the year that Carl was truly let loose in the studio.
Carl’s first taste of freedom in the recording studio would result in a song that not only climbed the charts but also traveled around the world. Based on an overheard conversation and a song idea from Johnny Cash “Blue Suede Shoes” was born. Released in 1956, the single was a smash, hitting the top of the charts and becoming Sun’s first million selling record.
On the way to New York, where Carl and the band were booked to play on The Perry Como Show, they were involved in a car crash - the memory of “Blue Suede Shoes” for most people was to be Elvis performing it on The Dorsey Brother Stage Show. At what should have been the launch of his career Carl could only lie in hospital with thoughts of what may have been.
While his later recordings were arguably better than “Blue Suede Shoes” they never met with as much commercial success and Carl slowly slipped off the public’s radar. Carl however simply returned to his roots and bided his time until he was rediscovered by the British Invasion of the 60’s and the rockabilly revival of the early 70’s. Throughout his career he played the music that he loved with passion and feeling be it in the Sun studios, bringing rockabilly to the UK or playing in Johnny Cash’s band – Carl was a constant, the variable was the public’s taste in music.