A Rockapaedia Obituary
Perkins died aged sixty-five from throat cancer on 19th January 1998, at Jackson-Madison County Hospital in Jackson, Tennessee, U.S.A. Among the mourners at his funeral at Lambuth University were George Harrison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Wynonna Judd, Garth Brooks, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. He was survived by his wife Valda who died in 2005, his daughter, Debbie and his three sons, Stan, Greg, and Steve. Carl Perkins was interred at Ridgecrest Cemetery in Jackson, Tennessee, U.S.A.
Carl Perkins was born near Tiptonville, Tennessee, the son of poor sharecroppers, Buck and Louise Perkins.He grew up hearing southern gospel music sung by white friends in church and by Afro-American field workers when he worked in the cotton fields. Beginning at the age of six, during spring and autumn, school days would be followed by a few hours of work in the fields. Carl Perkins and his brother Jay together would earn fifty cents per day.
On Saturday nights Carl Perkins would listen to the Grand Ole Opry on his father's radio. Roy Acuff's broadcasts inspired him to ask his parents for a guitar. Since they could not afford one, his father made one from a cigar box and a broomstick. Finally, a neighbor in hard times offered to sell his dented and scratched Gene Autry model guitar with worn-out strings and Buck Perkins bought it for his son for about two dollars.
Carl Perkins taught himself parts of Acuff's "Great Speckled Bird" and "The Wabash Cannonball", having heard them played on the Opry. He also cited Bill Monroe's fast playing and vocals as an early influence.
Carl Perkins learned more about the guitar from John Westbrook, an African-American field worker in his sixties. "Uncle John", as Carl Perkins called him, played blues and gospel music on an old acoustic guitar. Westbrook advised Carl Perkins to "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." Carl Perkins could not afford new strings, and when they broke he had to retie them. The knots cut his fingers when he would slide to another note, so he began bending the notes, stumbling onto a type of blue note.
Carl Perkins was recruited to be a member of the Lake County Fourth Grade Marching Band. Since his family was too poor to afford them, Lee McCutcheon, the woman in charge of the band, gave him a new white shirt, cotton pants, a white band cap and a red cape.
In January 1947, the Perkins family moved from Lake County, Tennessee, to Madison County, Tennessee. A new radio that ran on house current rather than a battery and the closeness to Memphis exposed Carl Perkins to a greater variety of music. At age fourteen, using the I-IV-V chord progression common in country music of the day, he wrote a song that came to be known around Jackson as "Let Me Take You to the Movie, Magg" This song later persuaded Sam Phillips to sign Carl Perkins to his Sun Records label.
Carl Perkins and his brother Jay had their first paying job as entertainers during late 1946. Carl Perkins was fourteen years old. One of the songs they played was an up-tempo country blues shuffle version of Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky". Free drinks were one of the perks of playing in a tavern, and Carl Perkins drank four beers that first night. Within a month Carl and Jay began playing Friday and Saturday nights at the Sand Ditch tavern, near the western boundary of Jackson. Both places were the scene of occasional fights, and both of the Perkins brothers gained a reputation as fighters.
During the next couple of years the Perkins brothers began playing other taverns around Bemis and Jackson, including El Rancho, the Roadside Inn, and the Hilltop, as they became better known. Carl persuaded his brother Clayton to play the upright bass to complete the sound of the band.
Carl Perkins began performing regularly on WTJS in Jackson during the late 1940s as a sometime member of the Tennessee Ramblers. He also appeared on Hayloft Frolic, on which he performed two songs, sometimes including "Talking Blues" as done by Robert Lunn on the Grand Ole Opry. Carl Perkins and then his brothers began appearing on The Early Morning Farm and Home Hour. Positive listener response resulted in a fifteen-minute segment sponsored by Mother's Best Flour. By the end of the 1940s, the Perkins Brothers were the best-known band in the Jackson area.
Carl Perkins had day jobs during most of these early years, picking cotton and later working at Day's Dairy in Malesus, at a mattress factory and in a battery plant. He worked as a pan greaser for the Colonial Baking Company in 1951 and 1952.
In January 1953, Carl Perkins married Valda Crider, whom he had known for a number of years. When his job at the bakery was reduced to part-time, Valda, who had her own job, encouraged Carl Perkins to begin working the taverns full-time. He began playing six nights a week. Later the same year he added W.S. "Fluke" Holland to the band as a drummer.
Malcolm Yelvington, who remembered the Perkins Brothers when they played in Covington, Tennessee, in 1953, noted that Carl had an unusual blues-like style all his own.
In July 1954, Carl Perkins and his wife heard a new release of "Blue Moon of Kentucky" by Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore and Bill Black on the radio. As the song faded out, Carl Perkins said that there's a man in Memphis who understands what we're doing and that he needed to go to see him. According to another telling of the story, it was Valda who told him that he should go to Memphis. Later, Elvis Presley told Carl Perkins that he had travelled to Jackson and seen him and his group playing at El Rancho.
Carl Perkins successfully auditioned for Sam Phillips at Sun Records in early October 1954. "Movie Magg" and "Turn Around" were released on the Phillips-owned Flip label in March 1955. "Turn Around" became a regional success. With the song getting airplay across the South and Southwest, Carl Perkins was booked to appear along with Elvis Presley at theaters in Marianna and West Memphis, Arkansas.
Again performing at El Rancho, the Perkins brothers were involved in an automobile accident in Woodside, Delaware. A friend, who had been driving, was pinned by the steering wheel. Carl Perkins managed to drag him from the car, which had begun burning. Clayton had been thrown from the car but was not injured seriously.
Another Carl Perkins song, "Gone Gone Gone", released by Sun in October 1955, was also a regional success. It was backed by the more traditional "Let the Jukebox Keep On Playing", complete with fiddle, "Western boogie" bass line, steel guitar and weepy vocal.
Commenting on Carl Perkins's playing, Sam Phillips has been quoted as saying that he knew that Carl could rock and in fact Carl told him right from the start that he had been playing that music before Elvis came out on record.
Also in the autumn of nineteen-fifty-five, Carl Perkins wrote "Blue Suede Shoes" after seeing a dancer get angry with his date for scuffing up his shoes. Several weeks later, in December 1955, Carl Perkins and his band recorded the song during a session at Sun Studio in Memphis. Released on 1st January 1956, "Blue Suede Shoes" was a massive chart success. In the United States, it reached number one on Billboard magazine's country music chart and number two on the Billboard Best Sellers popular music chart. In March Carl Perkins became the first country artist to reach number three on the rhythm and blues charts. Carl Perkins performed the song on ABC-TV's Ozark Jubilee, his television debut.
In the United Kingdom, the song became a Top Ten hit, reaching number ten on the British charts. It was the first record by a Sun artist to sell a million copies. The B side, "Honey Don't", was covered by the Beatles, Wanda Jackson and in the 1970s, T. Rex.
After playing a show in Norfolk, Virginia, the Perkins Brothers Band headed to New York City for an appearance on NBC-TV's Perry Como Show. Shortly before sunrise on Route 13 between Dover and Woodside, Delaware, Stuart Pinkham assumed duties as driver. After hitting the back of a pickup truck, their car went into a ditch containing about a foot of water, and Carl Perkins was left lying face down in the water. Drummer Holland rolled Carl Perkins over, saving him from drowning. He had sustained three fractured vertebrae in his neck, a severe concussion, a broken collar bone, and lacerations all over his body in the crash. Carl Perkins remained unconscious for an entire day. Jay Perkins had a fractured neck and severe internal injuries; he never fully recovered and died in 1958.
Sam Philips had planned to surprise Carl Perkins with a gold record on The Perry Como Show. "Blue Suede Shoes" had sold more than 500,000 copies by March 22. Now, while Carl Perkins recuperated from his injuries, "Blue Suede Shoes" reached number one on regional pop, R&B, and country charts. It also reached number two on the Billboard pop and country charts. Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" was number one on the pop and country charts at that time, but "Blue Suede Shoes" did better than "Heartbreak" on the R&B charts. By mid-April, more than one million copies of "Blue Suede Shoes" had been sold.
That April, while still recuperating in Jackson, Carl Perkins watched Elvis Presley perform "Blue Suede Shoes" on his first appearance on The Milton Berle Show, which was his third performance of the song on national television. He also made references to it twice during an appearance on The Steve Allen Show. Although his version became more famous than Carl Perkins's, it reached only as high as number 20 on the Billboard pop chart.
Carl Perkins returned to live performances on 21st April 1956, beginning with an appearance in Beaumont, Texas, with the "Big D Jamboree" tour. Before he resumed touring, Sam Phillips arranged a recording session at Sun, with Ed Cisco filling in for the still-recuperating Jay.
Beginning early that summer, Carl Perkins was paid one thousand dollars to play just two songs a night on the extended tour of "Top Stars of '56". When Carl Perkins and the group entered the stage in Columbia, South Carolina, he was appalled to see a teenager with a bleeding chin pressed against the stage by the crowd. During the first guitar intermission of "Honey Don't" they were waved offstage and into a vacant dressing room behind a double line of police officers. Carl Perkins was quoted as saying, "It was dangerous. Lot of kids got hurt. There was a lot of rioting going on, just crazy, man! The music drove 'em insane." Appalled by what he had seen and experienced, Carl Perkins left the tour. Appearing with Gene Vincent and Lillian Briggs in a "rock 'n' roll show", he helped pull 39,872 people to the Reading Fair in Pennsylvania on a Tuesday night in late September. A full grandstand and one thousand people stood in a heavy rain to hear Carl Perkins and Briggs at the Brockton Fair in Massachusetts.
Sun issued more Carl Perkins songs in 1956: "Boppin' the Blues"/"All Mama's Children" and "Dixie Fried"/"I'm Sorry, I'm Not Sorry". "Matchbox"/"Your True Love" came out in February 1957. "Boppin' the Blues" reached number forty-seven on the Cashbox pop singles chart, number nine on the Billboard country and western chart, and number seventy on the Billboard Top hundred chart.
"Matchbox" is considered a rockabilly classic. The day it was recorded, Elvis Presley visited the studio. Carl Perkins, Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash spent more than an hour singing gospel, country and rhythm-and-blues songs while a tape rolled. The performers at this casual session were called the Million Dollar Quartet by a local newspaper the next day. These recordings were released on CD in 1990.
On 2nd February 1957, Carl Perkins again appeared on Ozark Jubilee, singing "Matchbox" and "Blue Suede Shoes". He also made at least two appearances on Town Hall Party in Compton, California, in 1957, singing both songs. Those performances were included in the Western Ranch Dance Party series filmed and distributed by Screen Gems.
The 1957 film Jamboree included a Carl Perkins performance of "Glad All Over" written by Aaron Schroeder, Sid Tepper, and Roy C. Bennett, which was released by Sun in January 1958.
In 1958, Carl Perkins moved to Columbia Records, for which he recorded "Jive After Five", "Rockin' Record Hop", "Levi Jacket", "Pop, Let Me Have the Car", "Pink Pedal Pushers", "Any Way the Wind Blows", "Hambone", "Pointed Toe Shoes", "Sister Twister", "L-O-V-E-V-I-L-L-E" and other songs.
In 1959, he wrote the country-and-western song "The Ballad of Boot Hill" for Johnny Cash, who recorded it on an EP for Columbia Records. In the same year, Carl Perkins was cast in a Filipino movie produced by People's Pictures, Hawaiian Boy, in which he sang "Blue Suede Shoes".
He performed often at the Golden Nugget Casino in Las Vegas in 1962 and 1963. During this time he toured nine Midwestern states and made a tour of Germany.
In May 1964, Carl Perkins toured Britain with Chuck Berry. Carl Perkins had been reluctant to undertake the tour, convinced that as forgotten as he was in America, he would be even more obscure in the U.K., and he did not want to be humiliated by drawing meager audiences. Berry assured him that they had remained much more popular in Britain since the 1950s than they had in the United States and that there would be large crowds of fans at every show. The Animals backed the two performers. On the last night of the tour, Carl Perkins attended a party where he sat on the floor sharing stories, playing guitar, and singing songs while surrounded by the Beatles. Ringo Starr asked if he could record "Honey Don't". Carl Perkins answered, Man, go ahead. The Beatles went on to record covers of "Matchbox", "Honey Don't" and "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby" as recorded by Carl Perkins, adapted from a song originally recorded by Rex Griffin in 1936, with new music by Carl Perkins.
Carl released "Big Bad Blues" backed with "Lonely Heart" as a single on Brunswick Records with the Nashville Teens in June 1964.
While on tour with the Johnny Cash troupe in 1968, Carl Perkins went on a four-day drinking binge. With the urging of Cash, he opened a show in San Diego, California, by playing four songs after seeing "four or five of me in the mirror" and while being able to see "nothin' but a blur". After drinking yet another pint of whiskey, he passed out on the tour bus. By morning he started hallucinating "big spiders, and dinosaurs, huge, and they were gonna step on me". The bus was parked on a beach at the ocean. He was tempted by yet another pint of whiskey that he had hidden. Carl Perkins and Cash, who had his own problems with drugs, then gave each other support to stay sober.
In 1968, Cash recorded the Carl Perkins-written "Daddy Sang Bass" (which incorporates parts of the American standard "Will the Circle Be Unbroken") and scored No. one on the country music charts for six weeks. Glen Campbell also covered the song, as did the Statler Brothers and Carl Story. "Daddy Sang Bass" was a Country Music Association nominee for Song of the Year. Carl Perkins also played lead guitar on Cash's single "A Boy Named Sue", recorded live at San Quentin prison, which went to No. One for five weeks on the country chart and No. two on the pop chart. Carl Perkins spent a decade in Cash's touring revue, often as an opening act for Cash (as at the Folsom and San Quentin prison concerts, at which he was recorded singing "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Matchbox" before Cash took the stage; these performances were not released until the 2000s. He also appeared on the television series The Johnny Cash Show. He played "Matchbox" with Cash and Derek and the Dominos. Cash also featured Carl Perkins in rehearsal jamming with José Feliciano and Merle Travis.
On the television program Kraft Music Hall on 16th April 1969, hosted by Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins performed his song "Restless".
Carl Perkins and Bob Dylan wrote "Champaign, Illinois" in 1969. Bob Dylan was recording in Nashville from February 12 to February 21 for his album Nashville Skyline. He met Carl Perkins when he appeared on The Johnny Cash Show on 7th June. Bob had written one verse of the song but was stuck. Carl Perkins worked out a loping rhythm and improvised a verse-ending lyric, and Bob said to him, "Your song. Take it. Finish it." The co-authored song was included on Carl Perkins's 1969 album On Top.
Carl Perkins was also united in 1969 by Columbia's Murray Krugman with a rockabilly group based in New York's Hudson Valley, the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet. Carl Perkins and NRBQ recorded Boppin' the Blues, which featured the group backing him on songs including his staples "Turn Around" and "Boppin' the Blues" and included songs recorded separately by Carl Perkins and NRBQ. One of his TV appearances with Cash was on the popular country series Hee Haw, on 16th February 1974.
Tommy Cash, the brother of Johnny Cash, had a Top Ten country gospel hit in 1970 with a recording of the song "Rise and Shine", written by Carl Perkins. It reached number nine on the Billboard country chart and number eight on the Canadian country chart. Arlene Harden had a Top forty country hit in 1971 with the Carl Perkins composition "True Love Is Greater Than Friendship", from the film Little Fauss and Big Halsy, which reached number twenty-two on the Billboard country chart and number thirty-three on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart for Al Martino that same year.
After a long legal struggle with Sam Phillips over royalties, Carl Perkins gained ownership of his songs in the 1970s.
In 1981 Carl Perkins recorded the song "Get It" with Paul McCartney, providing vocals and playing guitar with the former Beatle. This recording was included on the chart-topping album Tug of War, released in 1982. This track was also the B-side of the title track single in a slightly edited form.
The rockabilly revival of the 1980s helped bring Carl Perkins back into the limelight. During 1985, he re-recorded "Blue Suede Shoes" with Lee Rocker and Slim Jim Phantom of the Stray Cats, as part of the soundtrack for the film Porky's Revenge.
In October 1985, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Dave Edmunds, Lee Rocker, Rosanne Cash and Ringo Starr appeared with him on stage for a television special, Blue Suede Shoes: A Rockabilly Session, which was taped live at the Limehouse Studios in London. The show was shown on Channel 4 in January 1986. Carl Perkins performed 16 songs, with two encores, in an extraordinary performance. He and his friends ended the session by singing his most famous song, 30 years after its writing, which brought Carl Perkins to tears. The concert special was a highlight of his later career and has been praised by fans for the spirited performances delivered by Carl Perkins and his guests. The concert was released for DVD by Snapper Music in 2006.
Carl Perkins was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1985. Wider recognition of his contribution to music came with his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. "Blue Suede Shoes" was chosen as one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll”. The song also received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award. Carl Perkins was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in recognition of his pioneering contribution to the genre.
Carl Perkins's only notable film performance as an actor was in John Landis's 1985 film Into the Night, a cameo-laden film that includes a scene in which characters played by Carl Perkins and David Bowie die at each other's hand.
Carl Perkins returned to the Sun Studio in Memphis in 1986, joining Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison on the album Class of '55. The record was a tribute to their early years at Sun and, specifically, the Million Dollar Quartet jam session involving Carl Perkins, Presley, Cash, and Lewis in 1956.
In 1989, Carl Perkins co-wrote and played guitar on the Judds' number one country hit, "Let Me Tell You About Love". Also in that year, he signed a record deal with Platinum Records for the album Friends, Family, and Legends, featuring performances by Chet Atkins, Travis Tritt, Steve Wariner, Joan Jett and Charlie Daniels, along with Paul Shaffer and Will Lee. On the album was Carl's recording of his own "Wild Texas Wind", which was the title song for the 1991 Dolly Parton made-for-television movie Wild Texas Wind. During the production of this album, Carl Perkins developed throat cancer.
Carl again returned to Sun Studio to record with Scotty Moore, Presley's first guitar player, for the album ReUNION, released by Belle Meade Records, which also featured D.J. Fontana, Marcus Van Storey and the Jorddanaires. In 1993, Carl Perkins performed with the Kentucky Headhunters in a music video remake of his song "Dixie Fried", filmed in Glasgow, Kentucky, In 1994, he teamed up with Duane Eddy and the Mavericks to contribute "Matchbox" to the AIDS benefit album Red Hot + Country, produced by the Red Hot Organization.
His last album, Go Cat Go!, released by the independent label Dinosaur Records in 1996, features Carl Perkins singing duets with Bono, Johnny Cash, John Fogerty, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson, Tom Petty, Paul Simon, and Ringo Starr. His last major concert performance was the Music for Montserrat all-star charity concert at London's Royal Albert Hall on 15th September 1997.