Memphis Minute - December 19th
As I passed the civic center that bears his name and drove down Highway 45 on the edge of the city of Jackson, Tennessee on Friday, I thought of Carl Perkins. After his family moved here from Tiptonville, he and his brother Jay began playing clubs and roadhouses on the outskirts of town. Perkins was 14 when a club offered them free beer for playing. He and his brother held their alcohol and took care of themselves in these joints where fights regularly broke out. I’m not sure his Mother approved. So he was playing his self-taught style of music derived from what he heard from Bill Monroe and what he learned from an African-American neighbor in Tiptonville. He combined those and other influences and made original music and played covers in a new way. A few years later he heard a Memphis teen on the radio singing a version of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” which he also played in those bars. He had sent demo tapes of his songs out but decided to come to Memphis because he thought Sam Phillips would understand what he was playing.
After recording some sides and gaining a local following, Perkins woke up one night after being inspired by a friend’s story and his usual habit of observing the audience. He said later he couldn’t find paper and struggled with the spelling, but the next day he brought his new song to Phillips. It took off right away and so did the Perkins brothers - Clayton joined Jay and Carl and so did Fluke Holland on a tour. The song hit the country, pop, and the “race” rhythm and blues charts and climbed fast, selling thousands in those first few months. But tragedy struck the band out on the road. On another highway, this one in Delaware, they hit a truck while on the way to their first television appearance - the Perry Como Show. Another Tennessee boy, though reluctantly, recorded a version of the song and got national attention while Perkins and his brother recuperated. Though it never climbed higher than the top twenty for him, if you Google the song, his version pops up.
While this competition was playing out, a group of kids from Liverpool were listening to both artists. The kid named George studied Perkins’ unique guitar style while his bandmates looked to Chuck Berry and the singing and performance style of a young man from Memphis. Later they would remake several Perkins originals, invite him to record on their solo projects, and play tributes to him and with him. Their drummer still sings a couple of what we now know as rockabilly classics. One in particular has also been recorded by his early band, Ronnie Hawkins, Johnny Rivers, T. Rex, Ben Folds, and Joe Walsh among others, and played in concert by errrbody!
Of course the first you know - unfortunately more of you know the Elvis version of the song, but the second has been covered more widely. Both influenced generations of fan/musicians, from the Beatles (especially George Harrison and Ringo Starr) to Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, and Brian Setzer. Both were recorded on this day in 1955 at Memphis Recording Service for Sun Records - the original “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Honey Don’t” by Carl, Jay, and Clayton Perkins, with Fluke Holland on drums.
Carl would later use his fame and earnings to support and grow what became the Carl Perkins Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse, which provides support to families in preventing and dealing with child abuse in West Tennessee, now with sixteen locations. His Mother would certainly approve.