Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Jan. 19: "The King of Rockabilly" Carl Perkins died on this date in 1998...

... he was 65 years-old when he passed away.

Called "the King of Rockabilly," Carl Perkins has been inducted into the Rock and Roll, the Rockabilly, and the Nashville Songwriters Halls of Fame. he is also a Grammy Hall of Fame Award recipient. His best known song of course, is "Blue Suede Shoes."

Perkins was the son of poor sharecroppers near Tiptonville, Tennessee. He grew up hearing Southern gospel music sung in church, and by field workers when he worked in the cotton fields at age six.

During spring and autumn, the school day would be followed by several hours of work in fields. During the summer, workdays were 12–14 hours, "from can to can't." Carl and his brother Jay together would earn 50 cents a day. With all family members working and not having any credit, there was enough money for beans and potatoes, some tobacco for Carl's father Buck, and occasionally the luxury of a five-cent bag of hard candy.

During Saturday nights Carl would listen to the radio with his father and hear the Grand Ole Opry, and Roy Acuff's broadcasts on the Opry inspired him to ask his parents for a guitar. Carl's father fashioned one from a cigar box and a broomstick. When a neighbor in tough straits offered to sell his dented and scratched Gene Autry model guitar with worn-out strings, Buck purchased it for a couple of dollars.

For the next year Carl taught himself parts of Acuff's "Great Speckled Bird" and "The Wabash Cannonball," which he had heard on the Opry. He also cited the fast playing and vocals of Bill Monroe as an early influence.

Carl began learning more about playing his guitar from a fellow field worker named John Westbrook who befriended him. "Uncle John," as Carl called him, was an African American in his sixties who played blues and gospel on his battered acoustic guitar. Because Carl couldn't afford new strings when they broke, he retied them.

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Essential Sun Collection
When he was 14, using the simple chord progression common to country songs of the day, he wrote "Let Me Take You To the Movie, Magg" The song convinced Sam Phillips to sign Perkins to his Sun Records label.

Perkins and his brother Jay had their first paying job as entertainers at the "Cotton Boll" tavern. As their popularity grew, the Perkins Brothers began playing other taverns. Carl persuaded his brother Clayton to play the bass fiddle to complete the sound of the band.

Perkins began performing regularly on WTJS-AM in Jackson during the late 1940s as a sometime member of the Tennessee Ramblers. Perkins successfully auditioned for Sam Phillips at Sun Records during early October 1954, and "Movie Magg" and "Turn Around" were released on the Phillips-owned Flip label the following March with "Turn Around" becoming a regional success.

With the song getting airplay across the South and Southwest, Perkins was booked to appear along with Elvis Presley at theaters in Marianna and West Memphis, Arkansas.

Another Perkins' tune, "Gone Gone Gone," released in October 1955 by Sun, was also a regional success. It was backed by the more traditional "Let The Juke Box Keep On Playing," complete with fiddle, "Western Boogie" bass line, steel guitar and weepy vocal.

That same autumn, Perkins wrote "Blue Suede Shoes" after seeing a dancer in a tavern get angry with his date for scuffing up his blue suede shoes. Several weeks later, on December 19, 1955, Perkins and his band recorded the song during a session at Sun Studio in Memphis. Phillips suggested changes to the lyrics ("Go, cat, go") and the band changed the end of the song to a "boogie vamp."

Released on January 1, 1956, "Blue Suede Shoes" was a massive chart success. In the United States, it scored No. 1 on Billboard magazine's country music charts - his only song to reach No. 1 - and No. 2 on Billboard's Best Sellers popular music chart. On March 17, Perkins became the first country artist to score No. 3 on the rhythm & blues charts.

During 1958, Perkins moved to Columbia Records where he recorded songs such as "Jive After Five," "Rockin' Record Hop," "Levi Jacket (And a Long Tail Shirt)," "Pop, Let Me Have the Car," "Pink Pedal Pushers," "Anyway the Wind Blows," "Hambone," "Pointed Toe Shoes," and "Sister Twister."

During May 1964, Perkins toured England along with Chuck Berry. On the last night of the tour, Perkins attended a party that turned out to be for him, and ended up sitting on the floor sharing stories, playing guitar, and singing songs while surrounded by The Beatles. Ringo Starr asked if he could record "Honey Don't." "Man," answered Perkins, "go ahead, have at it."

The Beatles ended up recording "Matchbox," "Honey Don't" and "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby" recorded by Perkins but adapted from a song originally recorded by Rex Griffin during 1936. After a long legal struggle with Sam Phillips over royalties, Perkins gained ownership of his songs during the 1970s.

In 1981, Perkins recorded the song "Get It" with Paul McCartney, providing vocals and playing guitar with the former Beatle. This recording was included on the chart-topping album Tug Of War released in 1982.

Perkins' last album, Go Cat Go!, was released during 1996, and featured new collaborations with many artists, including George Harrison, Paul Simon, John Fogerty, Tom Petty, and Bono. It was released by the independent label Dinosaur Records. His last major concert performance was the Music for Montserrat all-star charity concert at London's Royal Albert Hall on September 15, 1997.

Perkins died four months later, on January 19, 1998 at the age of 65 in Jackson, Tennessee from throat cancer after suffering several strokes.

During 2004, Rolling Stone ranked Perkins number 69 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.


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