Born April 9, 1932, in Lake City (one source says Tiptonville), TN; married wife Valda, 1954; children: Stan, Steve, Greg, Debbie. Addresses: Home-- Jackson, TN. Management-- Carl Perkins Enterprises, 27 Sunnymeade Dr., Jackson, TN 38305.

Rock and roll pioneer Carl Perkins and his two brothers, Jay and Clayton, were raised on a west Tennessee cotton plantation called the Wilbur Walker Farm. Theirs was the only white family working the fields, and Perkins grew up hearing the sounds of black gospel music as the sharecroppers worked together during the day. In an April, 1990, interview with Rolling Stone, Perkins described how this gospel tradition, along with a heap of Mississippi-Delta blues, bled into the country music he was listening to on the evening radio. As a young man he also soaked up the new wave of bluegrass coming over the radio waves, particularly the sounds of Bill Monroe as he performed at the Grand Ole Opry. Perkins fell in love with bluegrass because "it was uptempo from the other country dudes." He explained to Rolling Stone' s Dave McGee, "There's a lot of kinship to bluegrass and early rockabilly--I mean a lot."

John Westbrook, an elderly fixture on the Walker plantation, sold a guitar to Perkins's father when Carl was just seven or eight. Soon thereafter the boy could frequently be found on Westbrook's porch when the day's work was over, learning every blues guitar lick the old man could teach him. At night, he learned country hits from various radio programs, speeding them up as he played them on Westbrook's old guitar--accelerating them to the point that his father would interrupt, saying, "That's not the way [Opry great] Roy Acuff does it!" Perkins recalled in Rolling Stone that he would keep playing away, saying only, "I know it, Daddy."

The first song Perkins wrote was also the first he recorded; it was called "Movie Magg." The song described an adolescent's life in Lake County, Tennessee, where "you took your girl to the picture show on the back of a mule." With songs of that ilk and a developing, distinctive musical style, Perkins began playing around west Tennessee accompanied by his brothers. By the early 1950s, the Perkins Brothers were sending off demo tapes to Nashville and New York, all of which were politely rejected. "It's not bad," the record company people would say, "but we don't know what it is."

Perkins knew those days of incomprehension and rejection were numbered when he heard a recording of a young Elvis Presley, cut at the Sun studios up in Memphis. Some say the song Carl heard in his kitchen that night was the bluegrass classic "Blue Moon of Kentucky," to which Presley gave his own rocking twist. Others insist it was Presley's version of the Arthur Crudup composition "That's All Right (Mama)." That detail notwithstanding, Perkins immediately realized that he had found a kindred spirit--another musician who understood what the newly emerging rockabilly sound was all about.

After more dues-paying on a local radio show, Perkins and his brothers went to Memphis and pleaded with legendary Sun Records founder Sam Phillips for an audition. By 1955 Perkins had been signed by Sun, and by 1956 was on the top of the country, rhythm and blues, and pop charts simultaneously with his first hit, "Blue Suede Shoes"--the first song ever to achieve this triple play. In his Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock, and Soul, Irwin Stambler related the origins of this celebrated "early [anthem] of teenaged identity": "The song was inspired by a boy at a dance where Carl was playing. Poor but proud of his blue suede shoes, the youth wouldn't let anyone step too near them. At 3 in the morning after the dance, Carl got out of bed in his subsidized housing project and dashed off the song on a potato sack since there was no writing paper in the house."

Perkins wasn't on the charts for long before he participated in an event which has, in retrospect, taken on unusual prominence in the history of rockabilly and, indeed, rock and roll itself. On December 4, 1956, while still enjoying chart-topping fame, Perkins and his trio of backing musicians were working at Sun studios, rehearsing new material with another up-and-coming rockabilly artist, Jerry Lee Lewis. Elvis Presley, who was at the time unsuccessfully trying to break into the Vegas lounge circuit, stopped by "to say howdy." Country giant Johnny Cash, another prominent Sun artist, was also in the studio that day, and soon all four were gathered around the piano singing everything from hymns to country ballads. Phillips kept the tape recorders rolling, and a local newspaper photographer managed to put a picture of the four onto the following day's front page, dubbing them "The Million Dollar Quartet." The name stuck, and it underscored the idea that here was a distinctive, new, and potentially lucrative brand of popular American music. The tapes resulting from that session, containing ragged arrangements that begin and end in fits and starts, were finally released in 1988, prompting some critics to suggest that the event may have been more culturally than musically significant. As it turned out, Johnny Cash went home that day before the recording got underway--hence the Million Dollar Quartet remains more the stuff of legend than of pop music history.

Perkins was at the height of his career at the time of the "Quartet" sessions. In 1956, after producing other hits for Sun and some for Columbia Records, he was, in his words, going "toe-to-toe with that good-lookin' Elvis." That same year, however, just outside of Wilmington, Delaware, Carl was in an automobile accident on the way to a taping for Perry Como's television show, at which he was to be presented with a gold record for "Blue Suede Shoes." The crash fractured his neck in three places, broke the neck of his brother Jay, and killed their manager, David Stewart. Jay died six months later of injuries sustained in the crash, and Carl was forced to recuperate while Presley took "Blue Suede Shoes" on its second trip to the top of the pop charts, where it would sell even more than Perkins's version had. These events marked a turning point for Perkins's career; no longer would he remain "toe-to-toe" with Elvis and no longer would the Perkins brothers perform together. Some have speculated over the years, including Presley, that if not for the accident, Perkins may have emerged the bigger star. During a year of convalesce, Perkins began a long battle with drug and alcohol abuse.

The 1960s found Perkins the performer more often than not sidelined by younger or more successful acts, although Perkins the songwriter continued to be revered by bands like the Beatles. For much of the decade--during which fashion forced Perkins to leave rockabilly behind in favor of country music--he toured with Johnny Cash, serving as both opening act and lead guitar player. From 1969 to 1971 Perkins would be a regular on Cash's network TV show. In 1963, however, while touring England with early rocker Chuck Berry, he met up with the Beatles, who threw a party for him, afterward bringing him to Abbey Road studios, where they recorded his songs "Honey Don't," "Matchbox," and "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby." These recordings, and their subsequent renown, went nearly as far as the artist's own work had in the 1950s to insure that there would always be a spot for Perkins in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, into which he was officially inducted in 1987.

Perkins's alcohol problem became most acute during the 1960s. Then, one night in 1971 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, he walked onstage drunk and struggled through only three songs before giving up. He left the stage, threw his guitar against the wall, and sat for a while in the tour bus, sobbing. That night marked the end of his drinking days. By 1977 Perkins was touring again on his own, this time with his sons Stan and Greg serving as back-up.

The Million Dollar Quartet lived on in legend long enough to prompt an unlikely reunion--unlikely in that Presley died eight years and one month before the event. But on September 16, 1985, an illustrious rockabilly lineup returned to the cramped studios at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis to record some new originals. Hair-raising tenor Roy Orbison joined Perkins, Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis in place of "the King." Other notables in attendance included Sun Records artist Charlie Rich; Scotty Moore, Presley's lead guitarist; Creedence Clearwater Revival's John Fogerty, whose tribute to the Sun legends, "Big Train From Memphis," was recorded during the session; and the mother-daughter country vocal duo the Judds, who sang back-up. Perkins hadn't been in the tiny studio since 1958 and was clearly touched by the gathering. "That little studio changed my life," he told Rolling Stone. "[It] gave my kids new bicycles and gave me some new sharkskin britches that I could never have gotten out of the cotton patch. I tried sending tapes everywhere. But it was Sun Records that gave me a chance."

In 1992 Perkins released Friends, Family and Legends. Though not pleased with what he felt was overly glossy production, Pulse!' s Ted Drozdowski nevertheless reported in his review of the album, "Carl Perkins still sings like a god--all goosed up on the religion of rock'n'roll, the gospel for which he helped write." Shortly after the record's debut, the singer was diagnosed with throat cancer. But at 60, Perkins was every bit the survivor he was in his twenties. In an interview with Musician' s Scott Isler in August of 1992, Perkins reported that the more than 30 radiation treatments he had undergone appeared to have been successful and that he was "feeling stronger everyday." When he got up in a club after regaining his voice that year, intending "to do a couple of songs," five "slipped by ... real fast." The man, and the performer, it seemed, were incapable of quitting. By the fall of 1992 Perkins was on the road again, playing to enthusiastic houses in Europe, "fronting a series of star-studded anniversary parties for the Hard Rock Cafe, including one where longtime fan George Harrison dropped in," reported the Metro Times. Pulse! also tracked Perkins touring in Britain, where he had always been revered, with Presley band alumni Moore and drummer D. J. Fontana. Fans could almost have expected such a recovery from the guitar- and cotton-picker who, despite all the hardship and tragedy in his life, was able to tell one interviewer, "I have been and am to this day a very happy man."

by Matthew Martin

Carl Perkins's Career

Performed with brothers Jay and Clayton as the Perkins Brothers, early 1950s; signed with Sun Records, 1955; wrote and recorded "Blue Suede Shoes," 1956; toured with Johnny Cash, 1960s; appeared regularly on Cash's television show, 1969-71; signed with Columbia Records, 1969; signed with Jet Records, 1978; wrote and recorded with various artists, including Paul McCartney, Jeff Lynne, and NRBQ, 1970s and '80s; with George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Dave Edmunds, and the Stray Cats, among others, appeared in own television special, c. 1986; continued to record and tour, 1990s.

Carl Perkins's Awards

Gold record for "Blue Suede Shoes," 1956; inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1987.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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