Rockabilly giant is dead at 65 Appreciation: Carl Perkins was one of the pioneers of rock and roll. Now it's time to hang up those 'Blue Suede Shoes.'

January 20, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Popular music has celebrated some unusual footwear over the years, from high-heeled sneakers to boogie shoes. But few were as unusual or enduring as the pair songwriter and guitarist Carl Perkins immortalized in "Blue Suede Shoes."

One of the biggest early hits of the rock-and-roll era, the 1956 smash sold more than 4 million copies and inspired such giants as Elvis Presley (who cut his own hit version of the song) and the Beatles (who later recorded the single's B-side, "Honey Don't"). "Blue Suede Shoes" brought Perkins such fame that for years afterward he would never think of performing without a pair on his feet.

Now, those shoes will be put away for good. Carl Perkins died yesterday of stroke-related complications at Jackson-Madison County Hospital, outside Nashville, Tenn. He was 65.

Perkins wasn't a particularly prolific hit-maker, putting only that one single in the Top 40. Even so, his was one of the biggest names in '50s rock, forever linked with fellow Sun Records veterans Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison, and he was part of the "Million Dollar Quartet," an ad hoc combo with Presley, Cash and Lewis.

Some believe Perkins could have had even greater success were it not for accidents. One -- a car accident in 1956, at the height of the "Blue Suede Shoes" craze -- only kept him off the road for a few weeks, but it eventually claimed the life of his brother, Jay, and marked the beginning of a long-term drinking problem for Carl.

Perkins made his name playing rockabilly, a revved-up fusion of R&B and country music that electrified the South -- and, eventually, the rest of the world -- in the mid-'50s. Perkins came to the style naturally. Born the son of a sharecropper in rural Tiptonville, Tenn., Perkins' family worked cotton fields alongside black workers.

He learned to play guitar from John Westbrook, an elderly black sharecropper Perkins called "Uncle John," and grew up as familiar with gospel and blues as he was with the hillbilly ballads and bluegrass he heard on broadcasts from the Grand Ole Opry.

In 1946, Perkins put together the Perkins Brothers -- with siblings Jay on guitar and Clayton on bass. The trio played mostly country songs -- then-current hits by Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff -- but with a twist.

Between Carl's blues-inflected picking and Clayton's slap bass, the Perkins' versions of these songs had more kick than the originals, and that made the group a major attraction. By 1953, the group's sound was even hotter, thanks to the addition of drummer W.S. "Fluke" Holland. The Perkins Brothers were ready to go -- the only question was, where?

The answer came a year later. In 1954, Sun Records released Elvis Presley's first single, a hopped-up version of Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky." Recognizing a kindred spirit, the Perkins Brothers drove to Sun Studios in Memphis, where they auditioned for label owner Sam Phillips and were immediately signed. But it was Carl who Phillips recognized as a star in the making, and Carl's name that ended up on the group's first single, "Movie Magg."

Although his subsequent sides for Sun sold steadily, Perkins was hardly a Presley-sized success. Then, one night at a dance, he happened to hear a spat between two young dancers. As he recalled in his autobiography, "Go, Cat, Go!" the boy was scowling at his partner. "Uh-uh," he told the girl, "Don't step on my suedes!"

The phrase stuck in Perkins' head, and by the next morning, he'd written the song that would make his name.

Perkins left Sun in 1958 and continued to cut records, but by the early '60s, rockabilly had fallen off the charts in the United States. It remained popular in Britain, however, and while touring there in 1964, Perkins met the Beatles.

It turned out the four were not only fans, but wanted Perkins to go to Abbey Road studios to watch them record some of his songs. The Fabs cut five Perkins songs that night, including "Honey Don't" and "Blue Suede Shoes."

Perkins had trouble capitalizing on even this bit of luck, though. Just a few months later, back in Tennessee, he accidentally mangled his hand on the blades of a rotary fan. For a time, it looked as if he'd never play guitar again.

But play he did. By 1969, Perkins was a regular on Johnny Cash's TV show and worked steadily for the next 28 years. Besides his work with Cash, he also recorded with rock group NRBQ and had an English hit with the 1978 album "Ol' Blue Suede's Back."

Perkins continued to work through the '80s, touring Europe with Lewis and Cash and filming a TV special, "The Class of '55," with them and Orbison. In 1982, he was asked by former Beatle Paul McCartney to play on his 1982 album, "Tug of War," and backed McCartney and Stevie Wonder on the hit "Ebony and Ivory."

Besides touring with his sons, Stan, Greg and Steve, he wrote songs -- "Let Me Tell You About Love" was recorded in 1989 by the Judds, while "Silver and Gold" was a 1992 country hit for

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