Carl Perkins: In Memory
Carl Perkins was no Elvis.
"They took a light from the honky-tonk/Put the gleam in your eye," sang Carl Perkins, the greatest of the rockabilly kids who followed Elvis Presley to Sun Records, and in such a line he neatly encapsulated rockabilly's concerns and fears. Rockabilly, that reckless, primal thrash of honky-tonk country, is all about conflict--between rural and urban, between the head-first sin of Saturday nights and the heartfelt repentance of Sunday mornings. The honky-tonk gal Perkins is singing about is both his joy (she's hot stuff and she knows it) and his pain (she's no longer merely his demure housewife). She's the conflict of rockabilly personified.
In his great fast hits for Sun, Perkins treated his dilemma the way any self-respecting rockabilly cat would: He blazed out riffs and drove through the quandary in top gear. He'd deal with the consequences of his rampage tomorrow. Even lost in the thrill of taking his Gibson for an unexpected joyride, you could hear he knew that somewhere down the road there would be a price to pay. Rockabilly is about release, but its release always had limits--that's the form's country birthright.
That's also what made Perkins, a pure rockabilly performer then and always, different from Elvis or Roy Orbison, rockabilly cats who expanded into straight pop and, in doing so, uprooted themselves. "You could never take the country out of Perkins," Colin Escott wrote in one of his many expert liner-note essays, pinpointing one reason why Perkins never achieved Elvis-like success. Presley, for all his indisputable and unrepeatable greatness, sold out for pop success in every way imaginable. Perkins, even in his most banal countrypolitan settings, never surrendered.
Perkins' gracious, quavering tenor carried some magnificent country ballads; among the most noteworthy are "Turn Around," one of his first professional recordings, and "Let The Jukebox Keep On Playing," perhaps the most understated expression of honky-tonk regret in post-Hank Williams country. But Perkins' meat was his rockabilly--"Blue Suede Shoes," "Honey, Don't!" "Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby," "Dixie Fried," and on and on--in which he repeatedly drove full speed to the edge of the world, leaned over the cliff to enjoy the view for a brief second, and then, as he knew he must, pulled back and carefully headed home.
"Rockabilly sure takes me over the edge," top Stray Cat Brian Setzer countered when I threw that idea at him. "It's the most menacing music. Heavy metal is kid's stuff compared to it." Yes, but Setzer and the legions who adopted pompadours in the late '70s (another revival is just about due) discovered rockabilly music and its accoutrements, not the culture that created it. It's no accident that most of the rockabilly revivalists came from northern urban areas. To them, rockabilly is Gene Vincent's leer and Eddie Cochran's shake without regard for the honky-tonk imperatives behind them. The Stray Cats--broke up, reunited, reduced to beer commercials, and broke up again--can afford to shoot over the edge; Perkins and his contemporaries, who didn't have the luxury of growing up in a society that had already been liberated by rock'n'roll, had no such romantic alternative.
Yet on "Dixie Fried," his greatest uptempo composition and performance, Perkins came as close as any rockabilly to going over the edge and living to tell about it. His guitar flashed like the barroom-fight switchblades his tale celebrates; his voice danced with the wobbly exuberance of his brazen, drunken protagonist. "Let's all get Dixie fried!" he screamed. The violence escalated and the song smashed to its head-on conclusion, not with the law, but with the inevitable. Perkins may have had the gleam of the honky tonk in his eye, but that eye was fixed on home, where he prayed his honky-tonk gal has returned.
Carl Lee Perkins personified rockabilly with that first great hit, "Blue Suede Shoes." Its combination of whiplash guitar, stop-and-start beats, and teen lingo made it a Number One country hit (Number Two pop) for Perkins in 1956; performers as diverse as Elvis and Lawrence Welk cut versions in the wake of its success. But it was Elvis who topped a pop chart with the tune (a gentleman, Elvis refused to have his version released as a single until Perkins's version had run its course).
Perkins had followed Elvis to Sun Records, which accepted him after Nashville turned him down. His first single picked up one part of the Elvis formula (uptempo rocker on A-side, mournful country ballad on the flip), and Perkins toured briefly as Presley's opening act. Depending on who you believe, either Johnny Cash suggested Perkins write a song about the fashion craze for blue suede shoes or Perkins heard a couple arguing over a boy's scuffed suede shoes, or both. Whichever creation myth you believe, armed with a boogie-woogie beat and the lyrics he'd written on a paper bag, on Dec. 19, 1955, Perkins cut "Blue Suede Shoes" in two takes and invented rockabilly. While at Sun, he elaborated on this achievement, recorded the thrilling "Matchbox" with a young session pianist named Jerry Lee Lewis, and helmed the session that led to the famed Million Dollar Quartet event. Listen to those tapes and you hear the leader gracefully shrink to the background, thrilled just to be there. His records were loud, but the man behind them wasn't.
You couldn't be friends with Elvis, but you could befriend Carl Perkins. He didn't employ a group of men whose job it was to separate him from other people. But in the mid-'60s, as Elvis slid from bad film to worse film, reaping cash but losing his musical soul, Perkins suffered a different spiritual rock bottom. Few of his Columbia and Decca recordings had garnered the audience they deserved, the Beatles royalty bonanza (they recorded several of his tunes) had yet to materialize, and alcohol had begun to cloud his life. In 1965, he accepted a position as part of Johnny Cash's traveling troupe and supplied the Man in Black with "Daddy Sang Bass," a 1968 Number One. While with Cash, he kicked the bottle and gained the self-respect that led to a pair of lovely recordings, Boppin' the Blues, an earnest 1970 pairing with revivalists NRBQ, and My Kind of Country, a 1973 country collection for Mercury that still stands as his most consistent LP-conceived-as-an-LP.
After that, Perkins settled into the role of rock'n'roll elder statesman. He collaborated on two modest autobiographies, Disciple in Blue Suede Shoes and Go, Cat Go! In the '80s and into the '90s, he seemed generous, grateful, content. His songs were recorded by everyone from the Judds to Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton to George Strait. He didn't enjoy hits of his own anymore, but he appeared to enjoy everything else. Two of his sons were stalwarts of his touring bands, superstars as diverse as Eric Clapton, John Fogerty, Willie Nelson, Tom Petty, Paul Simon, and the three surviving Beatles paid periodic homage, and--perhaps most remarkably--Perkins remained married to the same woman who stood by him before he entered the music business. In 1981, Mr. Perkins founded the Exchange Club Carl Perkins Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse. His two most significant recordings of the past two decades, a 1985 cable TV special and his final 1996 album, features him surrounded by great artists united by their adoration for Perkins and his music.
It was a sweet old age. Health got in the way--June 1997 heart surgery led to a series of strokes led to his death in his hometown of Jackson, Tennessee, on January 19, at age 65--but much of Perkins's later years were filled with love of family and the friendship and respect of his contemporaries. Was Elvis's talent broader? Sure. But, as Jerry Lee is wont to say, think about it: Whose life would you rather have lived?
Jimmy Guterman's many compilations of Perkins recordings includes Jive After Five (Rhino), one man's opinion of Perkins's post-Sun best.