Carl Perkins: Rockin' Rebel Invents Rock Guitar

He's been hailed as the "Father of Rockabilly," and rightfully so. For more than four decades, Carl Perkins delighted critics and fans alike with his unique fusion of country, gospel, blues and bluegrass elements punctuated by a driving backbeat and some stinging, sizzling guitar playing. In 1956, his self-penned "Blue Suede Shoes" sold more than two million copies and was the first record to top the country, pop, and rhythm and blues charts simultaneously. That same year, his Sun Records labelmate Elvis Presley also recorded a searing version of the tune and sold millions more.


Subsequent Perkins'-penned gems such as "Dixie Fried," "Boppin' The Blues," and "Restless" continued to showcase the guitarist?s natural born talent for soulful phrasing, clever syncopation and blistering speed. Among the guitar-wielding giants who have cited him as a major influence are Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Mark Knopfler, John Fogerty, Dave Edmunds, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lonnie Mack, James Burton and Brian Setzer. Paul McCartney once conceded, "If there was no Carl Perkins, there would be no Beatles." The Fab Four, in deference to Carl, even recorded three of his songs: "Honey Don't," "Matchbox," and "Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby."

Carl was born the son of a sharecropper in a three-room shack in Tiptonville, Tennessee, on April 9, 1932. At the age of six, after his typical 12-hour day working the Tiptonville cottonfields, he began to take more than a passing interest in the country music emanating from his father's battery-operated radio in the evenings. WSM's clear-channel, 50,000-watt frequency from Nashville exposed Carl to the Carter Family's graceful, haunting harmonies as well as Roy Acuff's tortured, lonesome-sounding vocals. Jimmie Rodgers' unique blending of pop, blues and country and Bill Monroe's uptempo bluegrass numbers accentuated by mandolin solos played at breakneck speed also caught his ear. Inspired by what he heard, he asked his parents for a guitar. Having no extra money for such a luxury, Buck Perkins, Carl's father, nevertheless, fashioned a guitar out of an empty cigar box and a broom handle. At the same time, a neighbor, who was in dire financial straits, offered to sell Buck his beat-up Gene Autry signature model guitar for a few dollars. Buck obliged, and when he presented the instrument to Carl, the boy's eyes lit up.

While he was soaking up the country music stylings of Monroe, Acuff, Rodgers and the Carter Family, Carl also began paying attention to the spirited gospel songs sung by his black co-workers in the Tennessee cotton fields. There was something about the sad refrains that seemed to ease life's trials and tribulations. One co-worker in particular named John Westbrook, a gaunt, gray-haired black man in his mid-sixties who also played guitar, lived near Carl and would invite the youngster over after meals.

During their guitar-playing sessions, John taught the young six-year-old some blues riffs and fills in addition to minor chord progressions. With the little spare time he had, Carl practiced like crazy and began applying his new-found knowledge of the blues to country tunes such as "Great Speckled Bird" -- all the time paying close attention to John's advice to let the strings "vib-a-rate."

Carl knew he was on to something new. He continued experimenting with his blues- and gospel-tinged brand of country, combining it with Bill Monroe's penchant for lightning-quick solos.

While in his teens, Carl formed a band with his brothers Jay and Clayton. While Jay kept the rhythm flowing with his solid strumming, Clayton provided the perfect bottom to the backbeat with his flawless, clicking, slap bass technique. Dubbing themselves the Perkins Brothers Band, the trio eventually began drawing crowds in the rural honky-tonks where white workers let loose after a long day?s work.

"Those clubs down there were tough, man," Carl recalls. "The guitar became a weapon for a lot of them boys. With the only light coming from an old 78 jukebox, you had to be on your toes, 'cause if they came over and requested a song and you didn't know it, you better start makin' it up, or else get ready to fight your way out."

While listening to the radio on a steamy July morning in 1954, Carl heard something that would alter his life forever. It was a recording of a new singer out of Memphis named Elvis Presley performing Bill Monroe's chestnut "Blue Moon Of Kentucky" in a rambunctious, upbeat fashion.

"I lit up like a Christmas tree," Carl says. "I said 'God! I'm gone. I have to get to Memphis.'

So he and his brothers loaded up Carl's '41 Plymouth coupe and headed straight to the Memphis Recording Service on Union Avenue -- the studio where Elvis was cutting his records.

"I walked in there and I told Sam Phillips [owner of the Memphis Recording Service] I came to cut you a record," Carl notes. "Sam said, 'I don't need nobody. I got Elvis.' Then I said, 'I know it. But you got me now.'"

Carl had his way and went on to record nine records for Phillips' fledgling Sun label. The new, energy-driven sound became popularly known as "rockabilly," and Carl and his brothers, along with Elvis and subsequent Sun labelmates Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, became its leading practitioners. In less than a year, Carl and his pulsating beat, sprinkled with some dazzling guitar work, had mesmerized a whole new generation of eager listeners.

"We called it "feel good" music," Carl says. And then somebody in Nashville said "Them Memphis boys is rockin' our hillbilly music," and so "rockabilly" stuck.

"Rockabilly's not something that you sit and listen to. You become a part of it. If [when you listen to it] you don't tap your foot, pop your fingers or move, something's wrong. And I have to give credit to the teenagers of America who started liking it and took it as their kind of music. I also believe that when they was out at the sock hops, their mommas and daddies put on them records and learned how to jitterbug, too, because some of them dances I played had some silver-haired cats that really knew how to rock."

After 40 years Carl was still rockin' too, performing live on a regular basis, until throat cancer claimed his life in early 1998. Throughout his career Carl had kept alive the Perkins tradition of using family members in his backup band. In the early part of his career Carl's trademark, driving rhythm had so masterfully been propelled by his brothers Jay and Clayton, who both passed away in the 1960s. He later replaced them with his sons, Gregg and Stan, on bass and drums respectively. Carl's guitar of choice toward the end -- replacing the '54 gold-top Les Paul he used during the Sun years -  was a black G&L Telecaster personally signed by Leo Fender. In the amp department, Carl favored a tube-powered Fender Twin Reverb.

Perkins has a full and sizable discography which continues to grow year by year as re-issues of his music hit the streets. Today a Perkins greatest hits collection is essential listening for guitarists and musicians interested in the origins of rock 'n roll. Look for Carl Perkins: Original Sun Greatest Hits, or the Varese Records compilation Carl Perkins: The Complete Sun Singles. In addition, one tribute album titled Go, Cat, Go! proves just how far-reaching Carl's influence is. The album features guest artists such as Bono, Johnny Cash, John Fogerty, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Ringo Starr, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performing duets with Carl. Anchored by Carl's astonishing guitar-playing, the album also includes Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band offering their unique versions of Carl's classic "Blue Suede Shoes." An excellent autobiography -- also titled "Go, Cat, Go!" written with the help of journalist David McGee tells Carl's story in lively detail and offers Carl's incredible insight into the early careers of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison, as well as invaluable memories of the beginning of the rock era.

For those musicians aspiring to hit the big time, Carl's advice was pretty simple and straightforward: Be persistent. "Determination is what makes things work in this world," Carl enthuses. "Don't give up. Play your music the way you wanna play it. If you believe in what you're doin, and you know that you're pretty good and what you're doin' is a little different, stick with it. Being a little different is a good thing. That's all we were. We were just a little different."

"All we really wanted to do was not have to work in a factory or pick cotton, and we got to make a livin' doin' what we would have done for nothin,'" Carl continued. "I don't know of any other way to live, really. I get nervous before a show. Always have; always will. But once I get out there and when the audience gets in a groove and I see those happy faces, it's the greatest hour of my life. If I go with my guitar in my arm, I'll go happy."

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