Carl Perkins

If you’re looking for an example of a Les Paul being wielded at the very birth of rock ’n’ roll, you need look no further than seminal rockabilly artist Carl Perkins. After success brought in enough money for him to splurge on new a guitar, Perkins first splashed out on a brand-new 1956 Gibson ES-5 Switchmaster. This, ironically, found him running counter to the direction that Gibson had intended to push the growing number of guitarists on the rock ’n’ roll scene: fact is, though, at Sun Records in the previous couple of years, Perkins had used a pair of ’50s Les Paul goldtops to record the hits that earned him his ES-5 spending cash, and these solidbodies are responsible for the sound with which we still most associate him.

Carl Perkins

Rockin’ the Goldtop

The move was symptomatic, however, of the general way in which Gibson’s fledgling solidbody failed to catch fire with early rock ’n’ rollers, who were still more likely to proceed with the archtop electrics they had used to create the new genre in the first place. Sure, plenty of ’50s bluesmen strapped on Les Pauls, but Perkins’s use of a 1952 or early ’53 Goldtop with cumbersome “wrap-under” tailpiece to record “Honey Don’t” toward the end of 1955, and a ’55 Goldtop with Bigsby tailpiece to record “Blue Suede Shoes” in January 1956, signaled the most prominent adoption of the model by an early rockabilly or rock ’n’ roll artist.

Musical Melting Pot

With fifty years of musical hindsight fogging the rearview mirror, it’s too easy to forget what a groundbreaking star, and an enormous influence, Perkins actually was. Sun label-mates Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash went on to greater fame, but Perkins was regarded by musicians as one of the founding fathers of the exciting new genre. In Carl Perkins, one can truly hear the blend of country and blues that formed rock ‘n’ roll (a dash of Hank Williams’s vocal
 yelps, a pinch of Muddy Waters’s instrumental attitude), while a closer listen to 
many other major mid- and late-’50s rock ’n’ roll stars who came later tends to reveal 
a series of artists who mainly seemed to be 
trying hard to sound like Carl Perkins. All in all, Perkins’s sound was one that might
 strictly be categorized more as pure rockabilly—although rockabilly itself was a way station on the road to rock ’n’ roll anyway.

The Complete Package

Perkins differed from many early rock ’n’ roll idols in that he wrote his own songs. His first major single, “Blue Suede Shoes,” is perhaps better remembered today for Elvis Presley’s cover, but Perkins’s original recording was actually the bigger hit, peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard pop and R&B charts and No. 1 on the country chart, while also scoring Sun records’ first gold disc with more than one million copies sold by late spring of 1956. Sometime after this, Perkins painted his Les Paul blue in celebration of the hit record, and he retained the guitar even after buying his ES-5. The former Goldtop remains in the possession of the Perkins family in Jackson, Tennessee.

Carl Perkins