Personalities | Carl Perkins | Rockabilly | Country

For a brief period in early 1956, Carl Perkins was the first singer to take a pure rockabilly record – his self-penned ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ – to the summit of the best-selling charts in the USA. He beat Elvis to the top, but was never a realistic candidate to sustain this early promise because he lacked Presley’s film-star looks and was too hillbilly for real pop stardom.

Cotton Fields And Honky-Tonks

Carl Lee Perkins was born in Ridgely, Tennessee, on 9 April 1932. His father was a sharecropper and the family struggled on or below the poverty line. Their home lacked the luxury of electricity, so Carl’s musical education comprised such country music as was heard on their battery-operated radio plus hours spent with a black sharecropper called Uncle John, who taught him to pick the blues on a guitar.

Carl and his brother Jay started playing in honky-tonks in 1946 and by 1953 The Perkins Brothers Band comprised Carl on vocals and guitar, Jay on rhythm guitar, younger brother Clayton on bass and W.S. Holland on drums. They developed their unique style by introducing the phrasing and rhythm from black music on to basic country tunes. After hearing Elvis on the radio, performing in similar style, they travelled to Memphis in October 1954 and auditioned successfully for Sam Phillips at Sun Records.

Blue Suede Shoes

Perkins’ third record, ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ (1956), became the biggest of his career and one of rock’n’roll’s greatest anthems. It reached No. 1 in both the country and R&B charts, and No. 2 on the pop listings. Just as the record was breaking nationally, Carl was hospitalized following a car wreck and missed out on a national television appearance at a critical time.

He never recovered this early momentum, despite recording more top-quality rockabilly for Sun. His style was too hillbilly and his whole approach too rural for sustained pop stardom. Subsequent releases that are now rightly perceived as classics all failed to sell in worthwhile quantities. Carl just could not be moulded into a teen idol in the same way that Presley could. Disillusionment soon set in. Jay Perkins died of a brain tumour in 1958, W. S. Holland left to join Johnny Cash and Clayton became a hopeless alcoholic. Carl himself hit the bottle as his career slipped away from him.

Britain And The Beatles

By the end of 1963, Perkins had virtually retired from music when he got a call to tour Britain with Chuck Berry in May 1964. Apprehensive as to whether anybody would remember him, he was delighted to be treated as a star again and to find that audiences not only remembered but loved his Sun recordings. As an added bonus he was introduced to The Beatles, at that time the biggest act in the world. He found that they were devoted fans of his music. The whole experience in Britain served to revitalize his career and to overcome many...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, consultant editor Bob Allen


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