Carl Perkins

            Carl Perkins was one of the first recording artists of the 1950s to begin mixing the standards of country music with the basic tenets of rock and roll. His music is so classic, some people have likely heard his songs without even knowing his name. This is especially true of “Blue Suede Shoes,” which may have been popularized by Elvis Presley but was first laid down by Carl Perkins in 1955.

In fact, Elvis was far from the only famous recording artist to take a cue from Perkins’ work. For instance, The Beatles laid down at least five covers of songs that were originally recorded by Carl Perkins. These songs included “Matchbox,” “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby,” “Sure to Fall (In Love with You),” “Glad All Over,” and one of Perkins’ most popular songs, “Honey Don’t.” They took other cues from him as well, as evidenced by the guitar styling heard in “All My Loving.” This isn’t just conjecture; George Harrison has previously stated that the band used to listen closely to Perkins’ music in order to inform their own, and Paul McCartney has gone as far as to say that there would be no Beatles without Carl Perkins.

Carl Perkins wasn’t just about rockabilly music. He led a lifestyle to match. In his younger years, he used to pick cotton with a field hand who taught him all about the blues. He used to practice what he’d learned upon returning home, bending the notes on songs by country musicians such as Roy Acuff. He eventually started taking his style to honky-tonks in his area, bringing his signature take on country music to the people. This was long before the Memphis native would go on to become the “King of Rockabilly,” inspiring musicians such as Johnny Cash and Jimi Hendrix.

Unfortunately, luck was never completely on Perkins’ side. There’s a reason “Blue Suede Shoes” is generally associated with Elvis, which is that Elvis covered the song on The Ed Sullivan Show about three times. One of those times, Perkins was supposed to play the song himself but wound up in the middle of a nasty car accident on his way to the show. Perkins generally played lead guitar for other musicians rather than furthering himself as a star, backing up Johnny Cash for ten years. His name might be big with some music fans, but his legacy is far from common knowledge.

His personal life was beset by some tough luck as well. While he may have been, according to those who knew him, a hilarious and witty guy, the better parts of his personality were sometimes clouded by alcoholism. This was especially tragic given his humility and graciousness; no one ever generally described him as grandiose or self-serving. He played a set with Tom Petty in the 1990s with Neil Young in the audience, and his chief concern was that nobody would know who he was or appreciate his presence on the stage. According to Petty, Perkins was wrong.

Today, there may be those who do not know his name. But his impact on Johnny Cash, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley is something that resonates through all recording artists who are still influenced by those musicians today. Without Carl Perkins, the landscape of rock and roll music would be almost entirely different.

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