My column this month will focus on a real legend. The one and only Carl Perkins during his lifetime ensured his place as a rock’n’roll pioneer and super star. Some of my piece below will look at and question just how great he was.
We held a tribute concert at the Esse Café in Moscow to celebrate his rock’n’roll life. The band I booked were the Marshmallows. I’ve written about them before in this column. 3 beautiful women, performing beautiful 1950s style rock’n’roll. They gave us a great performance, as they always do. Some of the photos you can see were taken at the concert.
Perkins’ childhood and upbringing could not have been more “poor Southern”. He was born into a dirt poor family from Tennessee. His first jobs were picking cotton and working as a labourer, including a spell as an apprentice baker. From early on in his life he developed a taste for music, the most notable influence naturally reflecting his roots i.e. country music.
After forming a band with his brothers, he began playing local bars and clubs in Tennessee from the age of 14. There’s a really good story of his first regular bookings, which were at the Cotton Boll Tavern in Tennessee. It was a very rough and ready venue, where fights breaking out were the norm, especially later in the evening when the alcohol consumption increased. Carl and his brothers it turned out were often the participants in these fights and were not averse to mixing “punch-ups” with their performing !
Carl subsequently sent lots of demo tapes to many recording studios, trying to get their attention. But his crucial break came in the mid-1950s, when Sam Phillips from Sun Studios took an interest. It was indeed a defining moment. Phillips had also signed up Elvis Presley. When Elvis moved on to bigger things in terms of larger money making studios, Phillips pinned his hopes on Perkins becoming the next Elvis. And Carl certainly wrote and cut some wonderful songs at that time, numbers which were to go down in rock’n’roll history; for example “Boppin’ the Blues”, “Dixie Fried”, “Your True Love”, “Matchbox” and above all “Blue Suede Shoes”. Perkins got the idea for the latter number when, at a local concert one night, he observed a young man getting annoyed with his girlfriend who kept stepping on his new shoes. The song of course became one of the greatest in rockin’ history. Phillips gave Perkins total freedom to write and record the music Perkins loved and which he played a key part in developing in the 1950s i.e. rockabilly.
Now at around this time an accident befell Perkins, which gave birth to a subsequent myth about his career, which some people still believe in. Here’s what happened. Perkins and his band, on a long car trip to New York City for a TV appearance, were involved in a horrendous accident. Their car collided with a pickup truck and Perkins was thrown from the car. He broke several bones and had lacerations all over his body, injuries he never totally recovered from. He was unconscious for a whole day following the collision. One of his brothers was killed as a result of the crash, as well as the driver of the pickup truck.
Carl spent half a year recovering from his injuries. It was a critical time to be out of the music business and other artists took over the spotlight in his absence. The myth circulated was that Perkins’ accident prevented him being as big as Elvis and by the time he recovered, it was too late. Some even perpetuate this myth to this day. It is, frankly, baloney. Errr, Carl Perkins on a par with Elvis ? Elvis was unique, he moved and performed the way no-else could. He had charisma in buckets. I hasten to add I’m talking about 1950s Elvis, not the declining star of later years. Carl on the other hand performed in a very conservative way, looking rather awkward on stage. His sticking out ears didn’t help. No gyrating hips or wild movements for him. In other words, Carl was never going to be another Elvis – don’t even think about it ! Elvis was explosive, dynamic and suggestive on stage, Carl was restrained and controlled.
But what Perkins did have was a superb, wonderful sound in his recordings, especially the ones he cut on Sun Records. This is what makes him a legend for us rockers. After his recovery from the crash, he kept on going musically. He also started to drink very heavily and this affected his health. It was only later on the late 1960s when he finally kicked his drinking habit. During this period he also tried to re-define himself as a more “country” artist, no doubt in an attempt to earn more money.
It was also in the late 1960s that he teamed up with the great Johnny Cash. Cash had recently lost his long-standing lead guitarist Luther Perkins (no relation) who had died in a fire. Carl moved in to replace him and stayed with Cash for 7 years. This was the period of Cash’s greatest success, including his legendary prison show performances at Folsom Prison and San Quentin: Who can forget “A Boy named Sue” and it was Carl’s guitar you could hear on that song. And Cash’s famous hit “Daddy Sang Bass” was written by Perkins.
More or less everyone who knew him personally, testify to the fact he was a real nice guy. He befriended many in the business, for example he struck up friendships with former members of the Beatles, who performed with him on a few occasions. Not only the Beatles, but bands like the Rolling Stones, performers like Eric Clapton, all acknowledged Perkin’s huge influence on their music. For those of you like me who are not Beatles or Rolling Stones fans, one could say they could have done with much, much more of the Perkins influence !
Now I wanna get personal. Regular readers of this column will know I have been fortunate to have lived during a period which enabled me to see nearly all the legendary rock’n’rollers who came to the UK. As for Carl Perkins, here’s how I missed out. The first Perkins concert I was meant to see was at the Empire Pool in Wembley many years ago. I remember it was early Spring and I was dating a (non-rock’n’roller) young woman at the time. Well the night before the gig she had an accident and her hand was fractured. She phoned me to tell me about it and I spent the next 2 days looking after her, as a good partner should. I also remember splitting up with her very shortly afterwards and my main regret about the split was that I had missed the Perkins concert needlessly, including the fact that I had pre-paid for the ticket to see him. Not very romantic of me I know, but true !
The next occasion was in 1997. His last ever concert was in London for a charity event at the Royal Albert Hall, to raise money for an island in the Caribbean which had suffered the effects of a volcanic eruption. I planned to go, just to see Perkins. But the list of the other performers (Perkins was only one of many) put me off and I changed my mind. For example Phil Collins, Midge Ure, Paul McCartney, Sting, Elton John and Eric Clapton were on the bill: They may be your cup of tea but they’re not mine. And I wasn’t going to pay a wodgeful of money and wait ages, just to see the only one performer I was interesting in seeing i.e. Perkins. I was also put off a bit by his advancing years, which meant I would not be seeing him at his vintage best. Needless to say, if I’d known this was going to be his last concert (he died 4 months later, at the age of 65) I would’ve made a different decision.
The label that attached itself to him during his life and subsequently (which he encouraged), was “the king of rockabilly”. In my opinion, No. As I’ve written in a previous article, for me the real rockabilly king was Charlie Feathers. But Perkins was a genuine legend and super star and our great music has been enhanced by his contribution to it. So here’s to Carl Perkins, a true rock’n’roll Great.