By Ted Drozdowski
FEBRUARY 2, 1998: Cats are supposed to have nine lives. Rockabilly cat Carl Perkins had at least three.
The first got spent in '56. As Perkins was driving to New York City to perform his hit "Blue Suede Shoes" on The Perry Como Show, his Chrysler slammed into the rear of a truck. He suffered a broken collarbone -- and a loss of national TV exposure that probably set back his career. Roughly 10 years later, Perkins was playing the backwater country circuit during a lull in his popularity. On stage in Dyersberg, Tennessee, he caught his left hand in the blades of an unshielded fan. He survived despite terrific bleeding, losing the use of his pinkie. But a week ago Monday, complications due to a series of strokes he had suffered in November and December killed Perkins as he lay in Jackson-Madison County General Hospital in Jackson, Tennessee, where he'd lived for most of his 65 years.
Perkins was a quiet giant, a humble man who thrived on his music despite many bad turns in the business. He inspired the Beatles; he wrote hits for Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, the Judds, and others. And as one of the forefathers of rock and roll who recorded for the famed Memphis-based Sun Records, he pioneered the style of music that came to be called rockabilly.
Perkins once defined rockabilly as "blues with a country beat." But he defined it best in a December 1955 recording session engineered by Sun owner Sam Phillips when he cut "Blue Suede Shoes." For the lanky singer/guitarist who was born a sharecropper's son in Tiptonville, Tennessee, on April 9, 1932, the song was a burst of liberation. Phillips at first restrained Perkins from exercising his talent for exuberant syncopation, explaining that he already had Elvis Presley and didn't want another Sun artist competing with his first chart topper. So Perkins's initial singles were pure country.
But when Phillips sold Presley's contract to RCA, it was Perkins's turn to rock. Encouraged by his pal and fellow Sun artist Johnny Cash to pen a tune about the latest fad in "cat clothes," Perkins wrote "Blues Suede Shoes" and waxed it in two takes with a group featuring his brothers James and Lloyd on rhythm guitar and bass. The song was a perfect essay in the new music's energy and bad-ass teenage attitude -- a revved-up blend of the slides and rhythmic ticks that were the meat of African-American country blues guitar and an adrenalized version of the flat-four beat that propelled white country music.
It was a sound Perkins had been nurturing since he was a kid. At six, he began laboring in the cottonfields alongside blacks who sang call-and-response worksongs to help pass the days. At night, his father played "hillbilly music" -- country's early moniker -- on their battery-powered radio. As he entered his teens, Perkins learned country blues guitar from a black field worker named John Westbrook and began writing and playing country songs with the syncopation of the blues.
He also dropped out of school in eighth grade to help support his family. By day, he worked at a dairy in Jackson; by night, the Perkins Brothers played the little city's honky-tonks. Like blues artists Sonny Boy Williamson and B.B. King before him, Perkins persuaded a local radio station to put him on the air for 15 minutes a day so he could promote his gigs. In '53, at age 21, he married Valda Crider and decided to pursue music full time.
Perkins grew increasingly desperate as he tried to get a toehold in the music biz. Gigs were frequent but low-paying, and every major label that received his demos rejected them. The turn-around came in '54, when Valda told him about Presley's revved-up version of Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky" that she'd heard on the radio. Immediately Perkins and his brothers pointed their 1940 Plymouth toward Memphis.
Sam Phillips wasn't interested in auditioning anyone, but he heard Perkins anyway. As Perkins explained to National Public Radio's Terry Gross in 1996, when he appeared on Fresh Air to promote his biography Go, Cat, Go!: "He told me afterward, 'Carl, I had no intentions of listening to you. I was wrapped up with what I was gonna do to get records pressed of this boy Elvis. But you looked like your world would have ended,' I said, 'Mr. Phillips, it might have.' Because my heart. . . . I was just aching to get in that studio. I thought, I can't let Val down. I gotta get in there."
He also entered the American psyche. "Blue Suede Shoes" hit number two on the pop charts and sold two million copies. It was followed rapidly by other hits that would remain Perkins's cornerstones: "Honey Don't," "Boppin' the Blues," "Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby," and an update of Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Matchbox" that featured Jerry Lee Lewis on piano. Cash and Presley were also in the studio the day "Matchbox" was cut, and the four musicians' hour-long informal jam -- which Phillips captured on tape -- was eventually released as the "Million Dollar Quartet" session.
"At the time, this music was so new, there wasn't really a name for it," Perkins told Gross. "Some of the guys in Nashville heard it and said, 'They're rockin' up our music.' " So "rock" and the label "hillbilly music" were joined at the hip as "rockabilly."
Seeking a brighter stardom than the small independent label Sun could provide, Perkins signed with Columbia in 1958. But Columbia couldn't match the results of Sun's grassroots marketing, and by 1960 Perkins was playing Vegas to keep himself in spending green and drinking hard to buoy his spirits. On his first tour of England, in 1964, he found a new and enthusiastic audience -- and the support of the Beatles, who were captivated by the distinctly American sound of his hot-wired hits. They invited him to Abbey Road studios, where they performed his songs for him. Later they recorded "Matchbox," "Honey Don't," and "Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby." Perkins credited the Beatles with inspiring him to quit booze. Hearing his best work coming back at him, seeing how it inspired the Beatles, he realized that "alcohol can't write a song." It took him four years to get sober, however. And during that time he had a hunting accident in which he blasted his ankle with a shotgun, giving himself a permanent limp.
Although he never regained his stardom, the subsequent decades were good to Perkins. He joined Johnny Cash's band, playing on the hit "A Boy Named Sue" and writing Cash's gospel-inspired number-one country smash "Daddy Sang Bass," which Perkins considered his finest song. Cash and Perkins worked together to maintain their sobriety as they toured -- with the help of Cash's mother-in-law, Maybelle Carter, the foremother of country music. Through Cash, Perkins also met Bob Dylan, and they wrote "Champaign, Illinois," which Perkins recorded in 1969.
Perkins left Cash's group in 1975. In the '80s, he founded the Exchange Club Carl Perkins Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse, recorded with Paul McCartney, and made a live album with Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. In the '90s he won a spoken-word Grammy for his monologue about the early days at Sun on Class of '55, which teamed him with Lewis, Cash, and Roy Orbison. He wrote country hits for George Strait and Dolly Parton. And he was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and given the Academy of Country Music's lifetime-achievement award.
Through it all, Perkins's home remained Jackson, Tennessee. And last weekend
Jackson -- now a sprawling industrial burgh -- was in mourning. Road signs for
businesses offered messages like "Rest in Peace, Mr. Carl Perkins" to motorists
on the strangely quiet-feeling Route 45, which passes the hospital where he
died. And the sign for his own Suede's Restaurant made this request: "Please
Pray for the Perkins Family."
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