Carl Was Boppin' the Blues

June 28, 2002 - By Sheree Homer -
           Carl Lee Perkins was born in Tiptonville, Tennessee in 1932. A few years later, his family would relocate to Jackson. He was the undisputed king of rockabilly whose fame was skyrocketing at the same time as Elvis Presley's. They were rivals on the charts until a tragic car accident occurred on Carl's way to New York City to appear on The Perry Como Show and to receive his gold record for "Blue Suede Shoes." Elvis' version outshone Carl's version while Carl was recuperating from his injuries in the hospital. The original went no further than number two on the charts. However, he held no animosity toward Elvis, in fact they were good friends, but in the back of his mind he always wondered what could have been, how his career would have gone if it had not been for the accident. Carl's entire life was a series of struggles and missed opportunities.
           His family was very poor and had a difficult time of making ends meet. Carl was working the cotton fields already at age six. By the end of the eighth grade, he had quit school to work full time in the fields. His two brothers also quit school after eighth grade. Carl learned how to play guitar from one of the old black men that worked in the fields. At the time, he was only six years old, and it frustrated him that his fingers were too small to finger the strings correctly. He wanted to duplicate the old man's sound. This man, who Carl called Uncle John, would be his life long mentor. Whenever he became frustrated with his guitar, he could hear Uncle John telling him to just let it vibrate. "'Let it vibrate" had as much effect on [Carl's] playing as anything he would ever learn" (McGee 13). After a long hard day at the fields, Carl would always run over to Uncle John's house for a guitar lesson, no matter how tired he was. Even then, music had become as essential as air to Carl Perkins' existence.
           Carl would hear a song on the Grand Old Opry and adapt it to how he felt it. His father hated this approach as he felt the song should be played as it had been originally performed. If it isn't broken, don't fix it seemed to be his attitude toward his son's alterations. His brother, Jay constantly ridiculed his music also, telling him that he would be driving truck long before he would ever make a career out of being a musician:
           "'Carl, why don't you wanna be a truck driver like me? You stand a chance to do that," Jay said as the brothers made their way to the cotton patch. "You will never be on the Grand Old Opry. They make a lot of money. Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe- no telling how much money they make. They ain't gonna pay you. You'll never be like that."'
           "'Well, you just drive your truck; I'm gonna be singing onstage," Carl answered with absolute certainty. "That's what I'm gonna do."' (McGee 15&16)
His mother was one of the few people who believed in Carl's music and would tell her son and husband to leave him alone. "'Don't be messin' with the boy's music. That's him!"' (McGee 25). It is a good thing his mother spoke up and also that Carl listened to his heart on how to play the songs, otherwise we would not have the originality of Carl Perkins but instead another Bill Monroe or Roy Acuff.
           Carl was terrified of failure. However, he was bound and determined to make it as a musician no matter what. He refused to live the rest of his life picking cotton.
           At fourteen, he wrote his first song. It was a song about his unrequited love for a rich girl he had had a crush on in elementary school. He dreamt about taking her on a horse to see a western picture show. This song would be known as "Movie Magg." Soon after, he would form a band with his two brothers, Jay and Clayton and start playing honky tonks. There he learned to drink whiskey and moonshine and to fight. It would take a few years before he would advance to an auditorium or gymnasium stage. However, he would perfect his stage persona and come up with many ideas for his songs from the performances at the tonks.
           It was Elvis' version of "Blue Moon of Kentucky" that made up Carl's mind to go to see Elvis perform and later to go to Memphis to see Sam Phillips. He thought Elvis' way of singing was very similar to his own. Carl liked Elvis right away when he saw him perform live. Everything about him appealed to Carl, even his flashy style of dress. Jay, Carl's older brother, called Elvis a sissy because he wore pink and didn't think he would last long. Carl, on the other hand disagreed, he thought Elvis was very talented and very good looking. If he was making records, then he and his brothers could too.
           In October 1954, Carl packed up his car for the journey to Memphis and to Sun Studios (then Memphis Recording Service). He walked in the door alone, leaving his two brothers sitting in the car. Marion Keisker, Sam Phillips' secretary, saw the fire in Carl's eye for an audition but told him straight out that they weren't taking on any new acts at the time. Carl was undeterred and stated:
           "'Well, ma'm," Carl began tentatively, "that's my brothers sittin' out there, and we sure did drive a pretty long ways to get here. We're from Jackson, and if somebody would just"'
           "'We have this boy Elvis Presley, and we aren't listening to anybody else right now," she snapped. "He's hot!"'
           "'Yes ma'm, I know," Carl said politely. "I been hearin' him a lot. I sorta do that kind of music."'
           "'Well, that won't help you," Keisker declared. "If you sound like Elvis, that won't help you."'
           "'I don't sound like Elvis," Carl corrected her. " I said I do that kind of music."'
           "'I can save you some time," Keisker advised. "Sam Phillips, the owner isn't here. And he's not going to listen to you."' (McGee 87&88)
           Carl thanked her and went back to the car. As he was about to leave, he saw a blue Cadillac pull up in front of the studio. Out stepped Sam Phillips, and Carl quickly sprang to his feet. Sam tried to step by Carl without acknowledgement, but Carl refused to let him go inside before asking him for an audition.
           "'Man, I'm too busy, I don't have time,'" Phillips said curtly, making another move toward the door.
           "'Mr. Phillips, please," Carl pleaded. "Just listen to one or two songs, that's all. Man, you just don't know what it would mean to me."'
           Phillips knew what it meant to Carl, and later would tell him: "'I couldn't say no; I couldn't turn you away. You looked like your world would have ended."' So to Carl he said perfunctorily: "'Okay, get set up. But I'm busy and can't listen long."' (McGee 88)
           They played a few songs for him, but nothing hit a chord with Sam. Then Carl decided to do a song that he had written. That was the beginning of Carl's career. He played him "Movie Magg," and Sam thought it was one of the best songs he had ever heard, very original. However, he had his hands tied with Elvis and would be unable to help Carl at the moment, but he did tell him to stay in touch as he liked what he heard. He also told Carl to go home and write a few more songs. He returned a few days later and recorded "Movie Magg."
           While at Sun, he made friends and enemies. He was good friends with Elvis, Roy Orbison, and Johnny Cash. He and Jerry Lee Lewis did not get along too well. Carl thought Jerry Lee was talented but was too big for his britches. In fact a few times, they got into fistfights when a harsh word was exchanged. Later, Jerry Lee would play piano on Carl's "Matchbox" and "Put Your Cat Clothes On." Roy and his wife visited Carl's house often. The song "Claudette" was named after her. Carl and Johnny were together a lot as they had quite a few things in common. Later, they would both leave Sun at the same time and join Columbia Records and also tour together. They regarded themselves as brothers. Carl and Johnny helped one another overcome their drug addictions, Carl to alcohol and Johnny to painkillers.
           Elvis and Carl toured together early in their careers at Sun. One day Elvis took Carl shopping at Lansky's, Elvis' favorite clothing store. Elvis chose a bright blue shirt for Carl as well as some other shirts that he would buy himself. After their shopping trip, Carl came up with an idea. He decided that tuxedo pants were too expensive but liked the idea of the ribbon on the sides of each leg. He asked his wife to sew some pink ribbon into each side of the black pants he had just purchased from Lansky's. The next time, Carl performed, he wore a pink jacket, pink shirt, and his new black pants with the pink ribbon on the sides of the pant legs. Elvis happened to be there to catch his show and commented that Carl's pants were the coolest he ever saw: "'Whoa, them pants!"' Carl replied with "'That ain't nothin' but a piece of ribbon, man," "Valda [Carl's wife] sewed it on there for me."' (McGee 110) Thereafter, Elvis was spotted wearing those same kind of pants. He had every color in the rainbow in his collection. The hillbilly cat was born. Not only did Carl Perkins influence people's music, but also the way they dressed.
           Elvis had his influence also on Carl. Carl was at a show of Elvis' and decided to visit him backstage. When he went to see his friend, he saw him adding eyeliner to his lower eyelash. Carl was astonished to see this and asked why Elvis was doing this ritual. Elvis responded with the fact that it made his eyes look bigger and therefore stand out more. Carl looked at him and discovered it was true. He decided that he wanted to try it too. Well it did not work out as planned as Carl had been drinking a little too much, and when he tried to apply the eyeliner he poked himself in the eye. Elvis almost fell off the chair laughing at him, but that was the end of Carl's experiment with makeup.
           When Carl recorded "Blue Suede Shoes," he pleaded with Sam to let him record it again as he had messed up on some of the fingerings. Sam refused saying it was perfect like it was.
           When "Blue Suede Shoes" came out in late 1955, technology was changing. The 78 RPM records were becoming extinct, which was unknown to Carl. Sam had sent him two copies of the new single; both on 78s and both were broken by the time they reached Carl. He was anxious for his wife to hear his song, so he ran down to the local record store to buy a new copy. The store's owner, who was a friend of Carl's, handed him a 45 RPM record.
           "'No sir," Carl replied, "that ain't my record. See my record's a great big one with a little bitty hole in it."'
           "'This is what we've gone to Carl," the store owner replied. "They aren't going to make any more 78s. Even the jukeboxes are going to this."'
           Carl complained to the store owner, "'that 45 won't sell! That big ol' hole, little bitty record! Nobody's gonna buy that! I don't want it."' (McGee 152)
           He returned home to his wife disappointed, feeling his dream of having a hit record had been shattered in one split second. His wife tried to reassure him it was for the best as 78s broke easily. A few days later, he realized that 45s were indeed selling. He was surprised but relieved to find out that the song sounded the same on a small record as it had on the larger one. Soon a million copies were sold.
           Carl wrote the lyrics to "Blue Suede Shoes" after performing one night at a high school dance in his hometown. He saw a couple dancing close to the stage. The beautiful young lady had accidentally stepped on her date's blue suede shoes. He announced "'uh uh don't step on my suedes."' It almost killed Carl to see this as he could tell how badly she felt. All the boy cared about were his shoes and never forgave his date for ruining them.
           Carl went home with this on his mind and could not get to sleep. The images of the couple dancing kept floating in his mind. He ran downstairs and grabbed his guitar. He strummed a chord then decided he needed lyrics to accompany it. At three o'clock in the morning, he wrote the lyrics down on a brown paper bag from a sack of potatoes. That morning when his wife awoke and heard the song, she corrected him on the spelling of suede as he was spelling it swade. A hit was born from a simple incident. Most of Carl Perkins' tunes would originate this way. "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby" was written about ladies at the tonks who constantly flirted with Carl and the band. "Dixie Fried" was a song about having a good time, getting drunk. He had seen many people get too drunk and then get out of line.
           "Matchbox" was recorded once without Jerry Lee's piano playing, but then Sam came up with the brainstorm one day when both Jerry Lee and Carl were in the studio together to have Jerry play piano on that song. It turned out to be a hot single but cold when it came to airplay. It had been placed on side B, which Carl never had any control over with any of his singles. "Your True Love" was sped up which made Carl's brothers sound like teenagers. That single received more airplay. One of the best rockabilly numbers ever was set aside. "Put Your Cat Clothes On" was not even released as a single. It was not discovered until the mid 80s. It had been put away on a shelf for all those years. Everyone but Carl overlooked these two songs that could have been enormous hits.
           Carl like a lot of 50s performers was criticized for contributing to the delinquency of minors. His style of music was considered sinful. He received as much negative response from religious groups as any other artist did. In 1956, a preacher from Meridian, Mississippi, where he was to do a show that night, posed as an interviewer, attacked him and his music.
           "'We just want to talk to you about this music you're playing,"' the preacher began.
           "'Yes sir, be glad to," Carl said courteously. "What is it you want to know?"'
           "'Do you not know that you are defiling the minds of our beautiful teenagers?"'
           "'No, I don't know that I have," Carl said calmly.
           "'In your song you say, "Drinking liquor from a fruit jar." That's horrible!"'
           "'You never tasted none out of a fruit jar?" Carl queried, feigning surprise at finding someone who hadn't engaged in this noble pursuit.
           "'No waaayyy," the preacher replied. "But our children! We are responsible forthem."'
           "'I've got children. I'm not givin' em liquor out of a fruit jar."'
           "'You must pull this music. We have to find out what is happening to our youth!"'the preacher intoned gravely.
           "Having struggled to keep his cool during this colloquy, Carl went on the offensive, fuming at the suggestion that he abandon his music. "'It's people like you- that's what's wrong," he said. "Trying to make something out of nothin'. Leave the kids alone! What's wrong with them out there in that gymnasium in sock feet enjoyin' themselves? They ain't twistin' nothin' that you ain't tried to twist. And when I said, "drinkin' liquor out of a fruit jar," man I was lookin' for a word to rhyme with "car." I'm not tellin' Žem to go do it. I'm sayin' [they] could. But you don't step on my shoes! See what I'm sayin', man? Do I have to break this down for you? If you're that dumb, you believe what you want to believe."' (McGee 205&206)
           Carl knew that preacher was out to get him. He knew that the preacher did not know anything about rock and roll. He should not have been talking about it in the first place. The teenagers bought the records and played them, making the artists thrive. Carl did not care what the critics thought of him or his music. He was one of the few that had the guts to tell those people where to go.
           In early 1958, Carl and Johnny Cash parted ways with Sam Phillips. Johnny wanted to concentrate on his countryside and figured Columbia would open new doors for him. Columbia had spoken with Carl also about signing with them as they figured he could be a bigger act with them. Carl was becoming dissatisfied with the songs that Sam was having him sing and figured he had too many irons in the fire to concentrate on one artist. He figured he was more concerned with Jerry Lee Lewis' career than Carl's, so he left and joined Columbia. A deal he may have regretted later as it was a whole new ballgame.
           Columbia did not know how to deal with Carl and his style of music. They made him do songs they deemed appropriate. Carl did not have much say over what he was recording, and the studio time was clocked unlike the loose recording of Sun. During his stay with Columbia, he did not write many of his own songs and had a difficult time of getting airplay, let alone a hit song. It seemed he always got the short end of the lollipop. He never had the right direction when it came to recording. He had loads of talent but that did not get him as far as he should have gone.
           Also, Carl got cheated when it came to royalties. Sam Phillips had not given Carl the money he was deserved. Sam was in financial ruin, on the brink of filling bankruptcy. Carl was always trusting of people and thought Sam would do him no wrong, did not dispute the missing money until years later. He won the suit he had filed against Sam and was awarded over 36 thousand dollars in back retribution.
           Another heartbreaking blow to his career was when his brother Jay died of brain cancer. He and Jay were more than brothers; they were soul brothers. It took a long time for Carl to recover from his brother's death. However, I do not feel he ever completely got over the loss of his brother. During this time, his alcohol consumption increased and his career suffered.
           Carl Perkins had a series of accidents and health problems. Beginning with the car crash in 1956, he had bouts with alcoholism and got his third and fourth fingers on his left hand severed in an open fan when he tried to wave to the audience. He never played the guitar quite the same again. Shortly after, he accidentally shot himself in the foot after he was out hunting. In 1991, he had a bout with throat cancer. He had to endure painful radiation treatments and feared he would never be able to sing again. He came out the victor and was able to sing again. Unfortunately, in 1998 Carl died after suffering a stroke. He had had a few slight strokes after his battle with cancer.
           Today, most people still do not know who Carl Perkins is, which is a real sin. He was not only a great talent but also one heck of a nice guy. If he was mowing the lawn, he would stop to wave at a fan or sign an autograph. He made sure he always gave his 110% to the fans, as he knew if it were not for them he would still have been picking cotton in Tennessee. He had so many terrific songs, besides "Blue Suede Shoes." "Gone, Gone, Gone" "Matchbox," "Honey Don't," "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby," "Put Your Cat Clothes On," "Boppin' the Blues," "Dixie Fried," and "You Can Do No Wrong" are all timeless hits. Carl's own words seemed to sum up his career in music: "'Did you ever stop to think, when something's right it's just flat right?"'
McGee, David. Go, Cat, Go!, The Life and Times of Carl Perkins. New York: Hyperion, 1996.

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