Special thanks to ThisDayinMusic.com.
Recognized universally as The King of Rockabilly, Carl Perkins was born on this day in 1932 in Tiptonville, Tennessee. Born to poor sharecroppers, Perkins didn’t have much growing up and often turned to music as a source of joy and excitement.
Like many rock and roll pioneers, Carl was inspired by a variety of music at a young age. He heard gospel music in church on Sundays, and black spirituals while working in the cotton fields every other day (he picked cotton from the age of six, and worked 12-14 hours each day in the summer months). On Saturday nights, he and his dad would tune into the Grand Ole Opry to hear the best country tunes of the day. And soon, Perkins would learn about the blues.
But first, Carl needed a guitar. Because he couldn’t afford to buy him one, Carl’s father, Buck, made one out of a cigar box and a broomstick. When Carl’s musical interests outgrew the ramshackle contraption, Buck paid a couple of dollars for a beat-up Gene Autry model. Soon, the enterprising guitarist was trying to learn to play Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe tunes.
But young Carl didn’t just learn from the radio. He befriended a mentor in a fellow field worker named John Westbrook – an African-American man in his 60s. “Uncle John,” as Carl began to call him, taught his student how to play blues and gospel music on the guitar. Perkins later recalled John’s advice: “Get down close to it. You can feel it travel down the strangs, come through your head and down to your soul where you live. You can feel it. Let it vib-a-rate.”
As a young player, Carl showed the beginnings of developing his own style. He took to bending the strings – for no reason other than to avoid injury. Because Carl didn’t have money for new guitar strings, when they broke, he would simply re-tie them. The knots would rip up his fingers when he slid them up and down, so bending became a better option.
When Carl was 14, Buck moved his whole family closer to Memphis. Being nearer the big city meant that Carl was able to hear a greater amount and variety of music on the radio. He began writing his own country-style tunes – including “Let Me Take You to the Movie, Magg.” The song would prove to be very important a few years down the line.
After the move, Carl and his brother Jay took to playing in bars in the Jackson, Tennessee area – including the Cotton Boll tavern. One of their signature live tunes was Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” played faster and in a blues style. Soon, they recruited their brother Clayton to play bass and complete the brother act.
For about five years, Carl played on the weekends and toiled during the day. His jobs included working the cotton fields and positions at a dairy, a mattress factory and a bakery. In 1953, he married his longtime girlfriend Valda Crier. Shortly after, Perkins’ hours were cut at the bakery and Valda encouraged him to put more effort into being a musician full-time.
Playing as many as six nights each week, Carl developed a local reputation for having a unique style that brought together country and blues music. Although he sent demo recordings to the major labels, he never heard a reply. Perkins would have to find a different route to music stardom.
In the summer of ’54, Carl and Valda were listening to the radio when they heard a version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” sung by Elvis Presley, which sounded very similar to the way Perkins played it in concert. Little did they know that, after recording the take used on the single, Elvis had remarked that the version sounded like Carl Perkins. Instead of feeling ripped off, Carl got very excited upon hearing Elvis on the radio. Carl later remembered saying, “There’s a man in Memphis who understands what we’re doing. I need to go see him.”
That man was, of course, Sam Phillips, the head of Sun Studios. In the fall, Perkins played his “Movie Magg” song on his Les Paul Gold Top for Phillips, who agreed to sign the guitarist and songwriter to Sun. 1955 would prove to be a big year for Perkins. Phillips released a slew of his singles—including “Turn Around” and “Gone, Gone, Gone”—that became regional hits. Plus, Carl became tour mates (and buddies) with fellow Sun artists Presley and Johnny Cash. Of course, Elvis was the big star, but all three were becoming big names in country, rockabilly and something that was being called rock and roll.
Soon, Phillips issued a decree to his lineup of up-and-coming stars: the first musician to release a single that sold a million copies would get a Cadillac. It’s quite possible that old Sam (and everyone else) thought Elvis would be the one to do it— he had the biggest national presence and was the most successful up to that point— but that’s not the way it worked out.
In the fall of ’55, Perkins wrote what would become his signature song. “Blue Suede Shoes” was inspired by an altercation Carl witnessed between a couple on a date at a bar. While dancing, the boy got upset at the girl for scuffing up his shoes. That night, Perkins started writing.
Presley had recently left Sun for RCA Records. When Perkins showed up to Sun to record his new tune, Phillips told him, “You’re my rockabilly cat now.” It’s funny that Phillips’ contribution to “Blue Suede Shoes” would also include the slang phase “cat” – altering Perkins’ original “go, boy, go” to “go, cat, go.”
With “Honey Don’t” as the b-side, “Blue Suede Shoes” was released on January 1, 1956. Almost instantly, it was a massive success – introducing Perkins as a true national star. The song quickly rose to #1 on the country charts, #2 on the best-sellers chart and #2 on the R&B charts (the first song by a country star to reach the upper echelon, there). It also would top out at #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100. That winter, Perkins made his television debut to play the song – which soon became a Top 10 hit in the U.K., as well. The song was such a gem that Elvis recorded his own version for RCA, which also fared well on the charts.
But it was Perkins’ version that proved the most popular in every respect. Further down the road, Carl did what no one had yet been able to do at Sun Records – he delivered a million-selling single. As promised, Phillips bought him the Cadillac... although he paid for it out of Perkins’ royalties. Although Perkins would never have another hit quite so massive, he would remain a respected and prolific musician and songwriter for the rest of his days. His influence is so widespread, it permeates just about all of rock and roll history. It’s no wonder that the late guitar legend (he died in 1998) was held in the highest esteem by all four Beatles, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Garth Brooks and many, many others. He’s one of a select few artists to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.