In this fifth installment of the series “What Makes This Musician Great,” we will travel back to the cultural hurricane in the early days of Rockabilly music, and celebrate the innovative musical giant known as Carl Perkins.
As our society moves further beyond those explosive, tumultuous days of the mid-1950’s, it’s becoming easier to lose focus on everything that was happening simultaneously in music back then. We have a habit of organizing historical events into singlular timelines that don’t often tell an accurate story because overlapping events just don’t fit. For example, what is the difference between Rock ‘n Roll and Rockabilly? Was Elvis considered to be Rockabilly or Rock ‘n’ Roll? Which was Carl Perkins? Since they performed together, and they both recorded the same songs in the same studio at the same time, what’s the difference? The answer is that at first, not much. The word “Rockabilly” is obviously a blend of the words “Rock” and “Hillbilly,” but it’s a lot more complicated than that. Since Rock ‘n Roll was a blend of Country and Rhythm & Blues, then those styles must be noted. However, Rockabilly differs from Rock ‘n Roll by having a stronger Country and Bluegrass influence in the sound. That’s why Elvis was Rockabilly, at first and then more Rock ‘n Roll later. Carl Perkins did not change – he was always Rockabilly to the very end. Rockabilly is not a spinoff from Rock ‘n Roll. It was its own separate genre that simply didn’t go as far as Rock ‘n Roll because it wasn’t as adaptable.
For me, the clarity is revealed in a comparison of two competing versions of the hit song “Blue Suede Shoes.” The song was written by Carl Perkins in 1955, and he released his original version that same year, while the Elvis cover version was released the following year in 1956. I will have a lot more to say about this amazing song a little later. Both versions were life-changing, enormous hits for each musician, but it doesn’t take much effort to hear the difference. Simply put, the Carl Perkins version sounds more like Country music, and features a heavily reverbed (echo) lead guitar that sounds similar to Chet Atkins or an electrified Maybelle Carter. The Elvis version does NOT feature the guitar – it features Elvis, and sounds more closer to Rhythm & Blues than Country. A Yankee would say that the Elvis version sounds “blacker” than the Carl Perkins version. I refuse to say it that way, but you get the idea.
Looking at this from a different perspective, if you compare a live Hank Williams performance with a live Carl Perkins performance, you will notice quite a few similarities. They both composed original songs in 12-bar Blues form, and they both had great Blues/Country voices. They both had small combos to back them up onstage, and each man played guitar and sang lead directly out in front of the band. Each band also utilized an upright bass. However, Hank played acoustic guitar and Carl played electric, and probably most noticeably, Carl Perkins used drums and Hank did not. This small distinction is the main reason why the Grand Ole Opry resisted Rockabilly for so long – the drums. Roy Acuff simply did not like them, and did not want them used on his stage, even though the Rockabilly sound was obviously loaded with a strong Country influence. Carl Perkins was invited to play “Blue Suede Shoes” at the Grand Ole Opry in 1956, but he was not allowed to use the drums.
So where did he come from? Carl Perkins was a west Tennessee boy, and he grew up working cotton fields along the Mississippi River with his sharecropping parents and black field workers. His entire exposure to music revolved around those cotton fields – work songs, Spirituals, Blues, Country, and Gospel, and Carl became fluent in all of them. He loved to listen to old Blues singers and he equally loved to listen to the Grand Ole Opry. As a personal note, I am deeply saddened by today’s contemporary music industry trend of dividing listeners into exclusive categories, so that people are loyal to one particular genre at the expense of all others. It’s a Yankee thing, and I hope and pray that young Southerners will see through this nonsense and continue the tradition of their ancestors by embracing multiple directions in music, no matter the artificial category.
Carl Perkins and his brothers formed a band and became a hot item in the Memphis area. They basically played Country, Bluegrass, and Blues songs at a very fast tempo. He was noticed and signed to Sun Records in Memphis by Sam Phillips in 1954 at almost the exact same time as Elvis and Johnny Cash. Can you even imagine what that must have been like? One of the luxuries that Carl provided to Sun Records that Elvis didn’t was the ability to write original songs, and Sam Phillips took full advantage.
Carl’s big break came in 1956 when his original song “Blue Suede Shoes” became a monstrous crossover national hit. It was simultaneously #1 on the Country chart, #3 on the Rhythm & Blues chart, and #2 on the Pop chart, and it sold over a million copies in less than four months. Teenagers of all colors from all parts of America were infected by his sound, and Carl was on his way to the top – when he literally crashed.
An automobile accident involving his entire band nearly killed Carl Perkins, and left him hospitalized with a broken neck. While recuperating, he watched Elvis perform his own version of “Blue Suede Shoes” on Milton Berle’s TV show, and he witnessed his career path getting slightly derailed. Although Carl returned to live performances and touring later that year, it was too late to reclaim his dominance over Elvis. His live shows remained highly popular for a time, but his true talent of being a great songwriter began to emerge, and a new generation of up-and-coming rockers fell in love with songs like “Matchbox” and “Honey Don’t.” In 1958, his last hit for Sun Records was released, called “Glad All Over,” and after that point, it was obvious to Carl that his performance popularity was declining. He still continued to write huge hits for other musicians, but even revival tours in Europe couldn’t re-generate that same electricity from the early days.
If you’ve ever wondered why Ringo Starr of The Beatles kept appearing on Country Music Awards programs, it was because of Carl Perkins. The Beatles always played Carl’s songs onstage in their early formative days, and recorded three of his songs in 1964 – “Matchbox,” “Honey Don’t,” and “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby.” There’s even a legend that Carl was in the Abbey Road studios when they were recorded, and he chipped in to play guitar on “Matchbox.” Ringo was the lead singer on two of those songs, and they helped propel The Beatles to the top of the Country charts in America when they first arrived. Hence, the connection between Ringo and Country music went through Carl Perkins.
Could he read music? Although I have searched through several biographies and documentary films, I can’t find any mention of Carl Perkins being able to read music or not. I suspect that he could not, but then again, he didn’t need to. Almost all of his songs were in 12-bar Blues form, so once you’ve got the pattern down in your head, sheet music is really unnecessary.
Was Carl Perkins a religious man? Since I am too young to have experienced the conflict, it has always amused me that organized religion vehemently rejected Rock ‘n Roll and Rockabilly at first as being dangerously subversive and destructive, when most of the musicians themselves were faithful people. In his later years, Carl routinely sang gospel tunes in his concerts, such as “Amazing Grace,” “Old Time Religion,” and “Down by the Riverside,” as did Elvis. He struggled with substance abuse in the 1960’s, and he and Johnny Cash supported each other with their attempts to go clean. Carl Perkins composed “Daddy Sang Bass” specifically for Johnny and June Carter, making sure to use portions of The Carter Family’s hit “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” as well.
Was Carl Perkins a guitar virtuoso? Maybe not in today’s definition of technical difficulty, but in 1956, Carl Perkins was a monster of the Rockabilly guitar solo. Everything he played was original for the time, and all of the British guitar heroes of the 1960’s, such as George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Jimmy Page, worshipped Carl Perkins’ technique, and closely studied and analyzed every note he played. His main features included a banjo-like finger-picking style, muting strings with the palm of his picking hand, and bending strings to hit the “blue notes.” George Harrison of The Beatles was always spot-on in his imitation of Carl’s style, and the first time I heard The Stray Cats on the radio in the early 1980’s, I thought someone had discovered a long-lost Carl Perkins record, as guitarist Brian Setzer perfectly nailed the Carl Perkins style.
“Blue Suede Shoes”
Carl Perkins wrote almost all of his songs in a basic 12-bar Blues form, which means that each verse and refrain were 12 measures long, and divided up into three phrases (4 measures per phrase). Using the lyrics of “Blue Suede Shoes,” here’s an example:
PHRASE 1 – Well it’s a one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, now go cat go
PHRASE 2 – But don’t you step on my blue suede shoes
PHRASE – Well you can do anything but lay off of my blue suede shoes
This 3-phrase pattern is repeated throughout the entire song, and if you did nothing but spend the entire song counting the measures and phrases, you’d still have a productive listening experience. As I mentioned, every single verse is in this same form, and it’s very easy to follow.
Most of the time, Carl Perkins played in the key of A Major, as it naturally fits the notes and runs he preferred to play to make up his signature sound. In the key of A Major, the three chords needed to fit the 12-bar Blues formula were A, D, and E, which all have open strings for the bass note. This always gave Carl the freedom to access open strings for the bass notes of each chord he was playing, which freed up his fingers on the fretboard to move around and be more active without having to change the hand position. Remember how Maybelle Carter played melody along with her accompaniment? Carl Perkins did the opposite by adding the bass lines to his accompaniment, and this ends up being the trademark Rockabilly sound – 12-bar Blues with a mixed bass/rhythm strum. However, the bass line coming from Carl’s guitar while he strummed was still DIFFERENT from the actual bass line being played by the bass player. This kind of double bass line effect gives Rockabilly a thick, solid bottom sound to every song.
Now, I’m going to repeat the 12-bar Blues phrasing I outlined earlier, but this time I will CAPITALIZE and BOLD the words where the chords change. Once a chord is played, the song stays on that chord until you see the next chord change. See if you can follow it this time:
PHRASE 1 – Well it’s a ONE for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, now go cat go
PHRASE 2 – But DON’T you step on my blue suede SHOES
PHRASE – Well you can DO anything but lay OFF my blue suede SHOES
In this video, you can see and hear all of these things. The Carl Perkins Trio consisted of Carl on lead guitar and lead vocals, a secondary rhythm guitar, an upright bass, and drums. There are two verses, a guitar solo, a third verse, another guitar solo, a repeat of the first verse, and then a 12-bar Blues vamp to close out the song. Every section is only about 20 seconds long, and in the aforementioned 12-bar Blues form.
This is another stock Rockabilly standard by Carl Perkins written in 12-bar Blues form. The hit single record of this song has three verses and two guitar solos, but in this live performance, Carl only sings two of the verses and plays only one guitar solo. The opening low guitar riff is the hook for this song, and is identifiable by its incredible simplicity. The riff is in a shuffle feel, an is only one chord with two alternating bass notes. The strings are bent every other beat to raise the pitch ever so slightly, and it creates a driving and pounding rhythm that cooks. It’s such an easy, simple song, and it’s magnificent.
“Glad All Over”
This was Carl Perkins’ last hit with Sun Records before moving on to Columbia Records in 1958, and the original, innovative era of Rockabilly ended by 1962 for all practical purposes. This is one of his rare Rockabilly songs that was not in 12-bar Blues. There’s really no word for what form this song is in – it’s very unique. If this were a normal song, the basic construction would be a two-measure verse followed by a two-measure refrain (the “glad all over” part). There is a 4-measure bridge following the second verse/refrain, then a third verse/refrain, then a guitar solo, and then a fourth verse/refrain. However…what makes this song so incredibly unique is that at the end of each refrain, there are two extra measures, identified by the “hot dang dilly” part. Therefore, it’s more correctly formatted as a two-measure verse, then a two-measure refrain, and then a two-measure hook (the “hook” of a hit song is the most memorable part that sticks in your ears after the song is over). This gives the overall song a SIX-measure form, which is pretty unheard of in Western music.
In the 1980’s, the pop music scene granted Carl Perkins a renewed fan base following a kind of Rockabilly revival, and his awards and honors began to rightfully pile up. He was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, the Rock Hall of Fame, and the Grammy Hall of Fame by the end of the decade, in addition to local Halls of Fame in Nashville and Memphis. After beating his addictions, his songwriting skill switched over to more spiritual-style Country songs. He wrote several hits specifically for particular artists, and he kept touring as a member of Johnny Cash’s band. He remained musically and socially active until his death of throat cancer in 1998.