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Carl Perkins Was A King Too

I was at a wedding recently in Hamilton, Ontario. While my wife and I were congregating with the other guests near the bar after the ceremony, I was taken aback by a man in his fifties wearing a tan-colored suit and blue swede shoes. Wanting to have a little bit of fun, I walked over to him; me, in my black suit and polished-leather cowboy boots. 

Smiling, I said, “Do you realize that you’re the only person here wearing blue swede shoes and I’m the only one wearing cowboy boots.” To which he replied with a sly grin, “Well, I promise not to step on your cowboy boots, as long as you don’t step on my blue suede shoes.”

Carl Perkins
Carl Perkins promotion photo (US Public Domain)

Most of us acquaint the iconic “Blue Swede Shoes” tune to the “King of Rock-n-Roll,” Elvis Presley. However, Elvis was the second person to record it. The first person was the one who wrote the piece, Carl Perkins. 

Carl Perkins was born April 9, 1932 in Tiptonville, Tennessee to impoverished share croppers. Growing up picking cotton, he listened to southern black gospel music in the fields during the day and Grand Ole Opry broadcasts on the radio at night. He quickly took to guitar playing and along with his brothers Jay and Clayton started a band performing weekend nights in wild honky-tonks, as well as some small bits on local radio, where they combined country, hillbilly, and blues with a boogie beat into a genre soon to be tagged “rockabilly.”

In July 1954, Perkins got his big break when he heard “Blue Moon of Kentucky” by Elvis over the radio. That was Perkins’ kind of music. With that, he and his brothers drove straight to Memphis, Tennessee where the recording had originated out of a fledgling studio called Sun Records founded by owner-operator Sam Phillips and had opened for business only two years prior. Following an audition, Phillips thought enough of Perkins to record two songs he had written: “Movie Magg” and “Gone, Gone, Gone.” Both were released by Sun in 1955. 

Around this same time, Phillips had under contract Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, along with Perkins and Elvis. In the 1950s they all toured together and became good friends. Talk about a load of talent. This was like having Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Duke Snider, and Ted Williams all on one baseball team. 

In the fall of 1955, Perkins wrote his signature “Blue Suede Shoes,” after seeing a dancer at one of the touring shows get mad at his date for scuffing up his suede shoes. Well into the night that evening, Perkins wrote the lyrics (urged on by Johnny Cash), jotting them down on a brown paper bag. He recorded the tune on December 19 after only two takes, then Phillips released it January 1, 1956, with “Honey Don’t” on the B side. 

By year’s end, “Blue Suede Shoes” sold 1.2 million copies (Sun’s first million seller), reaching No. 1 on Billboard Magazine’s Country Music charts, No. 2 on Billboard’s Best Sellers popular charts and No. 3 on the Rhythm and Blues charts. Furthermore, the song helped propel Sam Phillips and his Sun Records to international prominence on the music scene.

However, in the middle of the song’s popularity, tragedy struck Perkins on March 21, 1956, following a show he did with his band in Norfolk, Virginia. As the band was driving to New York City for a gig on the Perry Como Show, Perkins was involved in a car accident that left him in a hospital with a concussion, three fractured vertebrae in his neck, a broken collar bone and lacerations to his body. His brother, Jay, suffered a fractured neck, and died from complications dating back to the accident two years later.

In April, while recovering, Perkins watched his friend Elvis Presley (now with RCA Victor Records) perform “Blue Suede Shoes” on the Milton Berle Show, Elvis’ third TV appearance doing the songAlthough Elvis’ version was probably the most popular and most well-known (but didn’t outsell the Perkins version), it reached only No. 20 on Billboard’s charts. While Perkins languished away in the hospital unable to promote his song in person, Elvis’ career soared, leaving Perkins in the dust. By the time Perkins was finally able to perform on the Perry Como Show that autumn, it was too late for him to catch up.

During his time with Sun, Perkins cut some more great tunes, such as “Boppin’ The Blues” (The B side was “All Mama’s Children,” co-written by Johnny Cash),” “Dixie Fried,” “Put Your Cat Clothes On,” “Matchbox” (with Jerry Lee Lewis on piano), and “Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby.” But Perkins still never quite achieved the stardom expected of him, despite his great song-writing skill, combined with enthusiastic singing and twangy guitar playing. 

Elvis Presley, Jailhouse Rock
Elvis Presley in 1957, promoting his tune, Jailhouse Rock (US Public Domain)

During the afternoon of December 4, 1956, Perkins, along with Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley all found themselves in Memphis at the same time and decided to jam together at the Sun Studio, playing songs--including plenty of gospel and country—that they wanted to play in a relaxed atmosphere. Bob Johnson, the Memphis Press-Scimitar entertainment editor, was there that day and called the once-in-a-lifetime meeting of these four and their subsequent session, “The Million Dollar Quartet.” The recordings were a huge hit years later in 1990, when the entire package was released to the American public. 

Perkins returned to live performances and cut more tunes, this time switching over to Columbia Records in 1958, but with only moderate success, due mostly to how the record company presented him: They had him taking on other musicians’ compositions, and on several occasions he wasn’t even playing guitar, only singing. During this depressing time for Perkins, he started hitting the bottle and didn’t get off it for a good 10 years, until a 4-day drinking binge nearly killed him.

During the early 1960s, he played the club circuit in Las Vegas and went on a tour of Germany. As his star continued to fade, he and Chuck Berry toured Great Britain together in May 1964, where they were backed by The Animals, whose mega hit “The House of The Rising Sun” was released that year. At first, Perkins didn’t think he could still pull in the crowds. But enthusiastic British rock fans proved him wrong. There, after one of his successful shows, he met the Beatles, who for years--as it turned out--had been deeply influenced by Perkins’ music and was asked if they could record some tunes he had written and recorded years earlier, namely “Honey Don’t,” along with “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby” and “Matchbox.”

Thrilled, Perkins had no objections. They all headed to the recording studio where Perkins supervised the handling of his songs. Paul McCartney said years later: “If there were no Perkins, there would be no Beatles.” Perkins tour was such a success that he returned to Britain later in the year.

Into the 1970s-1980s, Perkins saw a revival of his music trend, due to the nostalgic “Oldies” popularity, and he wrote several hits for country stars: “Silver and Gold” for Dolly Parton, “When You’re A Man On Your Own” for George Strait, “Daddy Sang Bass” for Johnny Cash, and a No. 1 seller for the Judd’s, “Let Me Tell You About Love.” Years earlier, he wrote “So Wrong” for Patsy Cline. Perkins also toured and recorded with Cash for nearly a decade as his opening act.

Known as a kind, gentle man to family and friends, Perkins died at the age of 65 on January 19, 1998 in Jackson, Tennessee of throat cancer after suffering through several strokes. He is in the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame, Rockabilly Hall of Fame, Memphis Music Hall of Fame, and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. His music lives on in his son, Stan, a brilliant musician in his own right and also a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

Today, Carl Perkins is considered the “King of Rockabilly” and his song, “Blue Suede Shoes” is “The National Anthem of Rock-n-Roll.” But he had some other great tunes, too. Check them out online or purchase a disk or two. My personal favorite is one that I have, “Carl Perkins Original Sun Greatest Hits.” It’s a keeper: Perkins at his twangy best.

Carl Perkins was the unsung hero of early Rock-n-Roll and part of the legendary “Big Three” trio in the mid-1950s consisting of Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Perkins who got it all started. One of his friends once said that hearing Perkins performing rockabilly was a sight and sound to behold:  “He was the only musician who could out-Elvis Elvis.”

Presley might’ve had the looks and the swoon, but the versatile Perkins could do it all from a musician’s standpoint. That says a lot for the son of a poor share cropper who dropped out of school in the eighth grade to pursue a musical career.


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