Born on April 9, 1932, in Tiptonville, Tennessee, Carl Perkins began performing live as a teenager. He signed with Sun Records and in 1956 released the highest-selling single of his career, "Blue Suede Shoes." Deemed the "Father of Rockabilly," Perkins influenced a generation of rock musicians, including the Beatles. He died in Jackson, Tennessee, on January 19, 1998, at age 65.
Carl Lee Perkins was born on April 9, 1932, in Tiptonville, Tennessee. The son of a sharecropper, Perkins was put to work picking cotton when he was 6. It was out in the fields that he got his first taste of gospel music. Though Perkins had a limited education, he started playing guitar with the help of a fellow farmhand.
Like his father, Perkins fell in love with country music, and by the age of 10 was entertaining classmates with his twangy sounds. Teaming up with his brothers, Jay and Clayton, he formed the Perkins Brothers band and began playing in small clubs around Jackson, Tennessee. Later, his younger brother Lloyd, a bass player, joined the group.
By the early 1950s, Perkins, newly married to his sweetheart, Valda Crider, was trying to make it full-time as a musician. He performed regularly on a daily Jackson radio show called Early Morning Farm and Home Hour, and picked up gigs wherever he could.
First Musical Success
The game changer for Carl Perkins came in 1954 when he heard Elvis Presley's "Blue Moon of Kentucky" on the radio. He soon piled into a car with his brothers and drove to Memphis, Tennessee. There, they managed to audition for Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records, the label that had released the Presley hit.
The first single that Perkins released with Sun Records was "Movie Magg." However, it was his rockabilly "Blue Suede Shoes" that became a monster hit. As legend has it, Johnny Cash gave Perkins the idea for the song while they were on tour with Presley. He wrote the lyrics of the song on a paper bag late one night following a show. Then, in late December 1955, he took just two takes to record the single, which would go on to sell more than a million copies. The song reached No. 2 on both the pop and R&B charts and was a No. 1 country hit.
"I never had played what I played in the studio that day," Perkins later recalled. "I know God said: 'I've held it back, but this is it. Now you get down and get it.'"
Career Ups and Downs
The Presley-sized fame that Perkins expected never came his way. Driving to New York City to perform on The Perry Como Show, Perkins and Jay were involved in a horrific car accident on March 22, 1956. It left both the guitarist and Jay with serious injuries.
While Perkins resumed touring that spring, the car wreck had derailed his career momentum. Still, he continued to record. During a session for the single "Matchbox," Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis joined Perkins in the studio. It proved to be just a one-day session, but a local newspaper quickly, and famously, dubbed the group "The Million Dollar Quartet." A CD of the session was released in 1990.
Jay was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died in 1958, an event that contributed to Perkins hitting an artistic slump and developing a serious drinking problem. That same year, Perkins left Phillips to sign with Columbia Records. Perkins had hoped that a new label would help him land other hits, but the move turned out to be just the first of a series of rocky attempts to rejuvenate his career.
While the music-buying public failed to adore the Perkins rockabilly sound, fellow musicians did. John Fogerty and Ricky Nelson credited him as a major influence. Perkins also became a favorite of the Beatles, George Harrison in particular, and in 1964 sat in on a session as the band recorded Perkins compositions such as "Matchbox," "Everybody's Tryin' to Be My Baby" and "Honey Don't." Later, Perkins performed on Paul McCartney's 1981 album, Tug of War.
Though stardom did not materialize for Perkins, he had a long-lasting career. For several years, he toured with Cash, and was featured on Cash's television variety show. Perkins continued to record on his own, forming his own record label and playing and performing with two of his sons, Greg and Stan. Perkins also wrote hits for other performers, such as "Let Me Tell You About Love" for the Judds and "Silver and Gold" for Dolly Parton.
Deemed the "Father of Rockabilly," Perkins was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
During the last decade of his life, Perkins battled a string of health problems. He beat throat cancer, which he'd been diagnosed with in 1992. In 1997, he had surgery to repair a blockage in his carotid artery. However, he suffered two small strokes later that year. At the age of 65, Perkins died in Jackson, Tennessee, on January 19, 1998.
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