Carl Perkins: Go, Cat, Go!

Carl Perkins (1932-98) may be the last of the major ’50s rockers I haven’t yet written about, but it’s his birthday today, and tomorrow is a very important Beatles anniversary, so I figure I’d better squeeze it in!

Not that it’s a chore! He holds a very special place in my heart, I just haven’t gotten to it. Like my dad Perkins was born on a Tennessee tenant farm in a family of cotton sharecroppers during the 1930s. Perkins was from Titptonville, way north of Memphis, a part of the state that is quite near the borders of Arkansas, Missouri, and Kentucky. Like many poor kids from the area he started out on a home-made guitar, teaching himself songs off the radio. When he was 22, Sam Phillips signed him to Sun Records, where he wrote and released his most enduring songs in 1955 and 1956. The most famous, “Blue Suede Shoes” was covered by Elvis Presley.

The momentum of Perkins’ career was cruelly interrupted by a vehicular accident in 1956 as he and his band were traveling to New York en route to appear on The Perry Como Show. He was several weeks in recovering. His brother Jay, part of his band, died of his injuries a few months later. Perkins did achieve national fame, but not until nearly a decade later, when cover versions by the Beatles made several other songs famous.

The Beatles looked up to Perkins as an idol and emulated him in every conceivable way as they formed their band in the late ’50s. Perkins was known as the king of the style of music that has since been dubbed Rockabilly. In their early years the Beatles modeled themselves on American greasers, with D.A. haircuts and leather jackets. George Harrison was to become Perkins’ foremost acolyte as a musician (for a time in 1960 he even went by the name Carl Harrison, in his honor). While the Beatles had been playing Perkins’ songs for years, their versions didn’t make it onto record and available to a much larger audience until the mid ’60s. “Matchbox”, based on lyrics copped from Ma Rainey and Blind Lemon Jefferson, was sung at various times by Pete Best and John Lennon, then finally by Ringo Starr on the best known version released in 1963. The B side of “Blue Suede Shoes”,  “Honey Don’t”, was sung by Ringo in 1964. George Harrison sang on the Beatles version of “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby”. The Get Back/Let it Be sessions in 1969 yielded covers of “Sure to Fall”, “Tennessee”, and “Blue Suede Shows”, long only available on bootleg, some later through official releases. (“Tennessee” is a particular favorite of mine).

In 1968 Johnny Cash recorded Perkins’ song “Daddy Sang Bass”, a popular, slightly comical hit, and Perkins appeared numerous times on The Johnny Cash Show from 1969 through 1971. Perkins also co-wrote the song “Champaign, Illinois” with Bob Dylan around the time of he Nashville Skyline sessions, in 1969. Over the years, Perkins’ profile slowly increased. He appeared on The Mike Douglas Show and Dinah. In the ’80s he collaborated with all three surviving Beatles. He performed the tune “Get it” with Paul McCartney on Tug of War in 1982. In 1985 he performed on a British TV show with George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton and Roseanne Cash. From 1986 through 1990 he was on The Late Show with David Letterman 3 times. He did Conan in 1996; Leno in 1997.

Perkins died of throat cancer in 1998, very probably at the height of his fame.