Perkins, Carl

Perkins, Carl
▪ 1999

      American musician and songwriter (b. April 9, 1932, Tiptonville, Tenn.—d. Jan. 19, 1998, Jackson, Tenn.), was a pioneer of rockabilly, a fusion of blues, country, rhythm and blues, and gospel that gave rise to rock and roll; his single "Blue Suede Shoes" was the musical movement's anthem. Born the son of a sharecropper, Perkins was taught to play the guitar by a field hand and at the age of 14 began writing songs. He formed a band with his brothers Clayton and Jay, and after hearing the similar musical style of Elvis Presley, the trio moved to Nashville, Tenn., where they signed with Sun Records, Presley's label. Perkins soon began producing regional hits and became the opening act for Presley. In 1955 he wrote "Blue Suede Shoes," which reached number two on the singles chart. The following year, en route to his first national television appearance, Perkins was seriously injured in an automobile accident. Though he recovered and resumed writing and recording other rockabilly standards, such as "Honey Don't" (1956) and "Matchbox" (1957), Perkins's career stalled, overshadowed by the popularity of Presley, whose version of "Blue Suede Shoes" had gone to the top of the charts, and plagued by personal problems, including alcoholism. His hard-rocking guitar play, however, proved influential to other musicians, and in the 1960s the Beatles covered several of his songs. From 1965 to 1976 he toured with Johnny Cash and performed on the country singer's television show. Perkins later formed a band with his sons. In 1987 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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▪ American musician and songwriter
born April 9, 1932, Tiptonville, Tenn., U.S.
died Jan. 19, 1998, Jackson, Tenn.

      American singer, songwriter, and guitarist whose song “Blue Suede Shoes” was a touchstone of the rockabilly musical movement of the 1950s. A “triple threat” performer—a strong singer, a prolific and imaginative songwriter, and an excellent and influential lead guitarist—Perkins rose from sharecropping poverty to international fame.

      He was taught to play the guitar by an African-American neighbour with whom he picked cotton. Grounded in gospel music and influenced by bluegrass and Hank Williams (Williams, Hank), Perkins developed his style on the bar circuit in Jackson, Tennessee, playing from age 14 in a band that was rounded out by his brothers Clayton (on upright bass) and Jay (on acoustic rhythm guitar). After hearing Elvis Presley (Presley, Elvis) on the radio and being excited by the similarities between his music and their own beat-driven approach to country music, the Perkins brothers went to Memphis, Tennessee, to audition for , the label for which Presley recorded. Perkins's big break came in 1956 with “Blue Suede Shoes,” which he wrote after observing a dancer taking pains to preserve his new footwear. The song made the Top Five on the pop, country (country music), and rhythm-and-blues (rhythm and blues) charts, an unprecedented feat. En route to New York City to perform on national television, Carl and Jay were seriously injured in a car accident, temporarily halting the band's momentum. In the meantime, Presley, by then recording for RCA, had a hit with his cover version of “Blue Suede Shoes.”

      Perkins produced two moderate hits for Sun before leaving Sam Phillips's label in 1958 to record for Columbia, where he managed only two minor chart entries; and Jay died that year of a malignant brain tumour. Dispirited by these events, Perkins fell victim to low morale and alcoholism. In 1964 and 1965, at the height of Beatlemania, he toured in Britain. George Harrison had been particularly influenced by his guitar playing, and the Beatles (Beatles, the) recorded several of his songs, including “Matchbox” (based on a blues standard) and “Honey Don't,” raising Perkins's profile and providing him with royalty earnings. From 1965 to 1976 he performed with Johnny Cash (Cash, Johnny) as part of Cash's touring ensemble and on his television show. In their first year together the former Sun labelmates became born-again Christians and renounced their addictions. Cash also had a big hit with Perkins's composition “Daddy Sang Bass.” Indeed, many other country acts found similar success with his songs. Subsequently, Perkins again played with a family band, this time with sons Greg (on bass) and Stan (on drums). Unquestionably one of rock music's pioneers, Perkins was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

Craig Morrison

Representative Works

● “Blue Suede Shoes”/“Honey Don't” (1956)
● “Boppin' the Blues/“All Mama's Children” (1956)
● “Matchbox”/“Your True Love” (1957)
● “Pink Pedal Pushers”/“Jive After Five” (1958)
● “Levi Jacket”/“Pop, Let Me Have the Car” (1958)

Additional Reading
Carl Perkins and David McGee, Go Cat Go!: The Life and Times of Carl Perkins, the King of Rockabilly (1996), includes a discography.

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Universalium. 2010.

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