One of rock ‘n’ roll’s pre-eminent figures died Monday, January 19, 1998 due to complications following a series of strokes. Carl Perkins, age 65, had been recuperating in a Jackson, Tennessee, hospital following two mild strokes which occurred in the past month. Along with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, Perkins helped lay the foundation upon which rock ‘n’ roll was built.
Perkins shot to fame in 1956 with his recording of “Blue Suede Shoes” for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records. Dubbed the “hep cat,” that song earned him the distinction of being the first white artist to break the color barrier and land a spot on the R&B charts. Perkins’ hybrid of gospel, country and Delta blues music had a hard-edged sound that was instantly recognizable. His boogie woogie guitar style had a profound impact on many aspiring musicians in the 1950s, including one teenager, George Harrison. It has been written that the one-time Beatle learned to play the guitar by listening to Perkins’ records and briefly changed his name to Carl Perkins out of admiration for the rockabilly icon.
John Fogerty and Rick Nelson cited Perkins as a major influence on their careers as well. Perkins played a key role in the early career of the late Rick Nelson, who covered two of his songs, “Boppin’ the Blues” and “Your True Love” on his 1957 debut album for Imperial.
The congenial, mild-mannered Perkins was born in 1932 to a poor but hardworking family of sharecroppers. At age six, he was picking cotton alongside African-American field hands. An older field hand took Perkins under his wing and taught him how to play the guitar. By age ten, Carl was entertaining his friends, and by the mid-1940s, Carl was playing local dances with his brothers Jay and Clayton. In 1949, the Perkins Brothers were joined by drummer W. S. Holland, who later went on to work with Johnny Cash. In 1954, the group released their first record for Sun, “Movie Magg.”
Just as his career was in full swing, Perkins was sidelined by a car accident. En route to New York City to perform on the Perry Como Show, the car in which he and his brother Jay were riding struck the back of a truck. The driver of the car was killed instantly and both Carl and Jay were seriously injured. Perkins mended but Jay never fully recovered from the trauma of the accident. Jay later was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died in 1958. His death sent Carl into a serious slump, which manifested into a serious drinking problem for Perkins.
In 1958 Carl also moved from Sun Records to Columbia, but his career never regained the momentum of its early years. Rockabilly had begun to wane in popularity, and with Perkins’ recording base being in Nashville, he turned to a more country-oriented sound.
By 1964, things were looking up, though. With the help of four lads from Great Britain in the 1960s, Perkins’ career received a much-needed boost. The Beatles’ covers of Carl’s songs introduced the hep cat to a new generation of rock fans. On a summer tour of England, he met the Beatles and was on hand for the session at which they recorded “Matchbox.” The group also recorded other Perkins’ compositions including, “Everybody’s Tryin’ to Be My Baby” and “Honey Don’t.” Perkins maintained long-term friendships with the group and was featured on Paul McCartney’s 1981 album, Tug of War.
In 1965 he joined Johnny Cash’s road troupe and was featured on Cash’s ABC Network television show. During his tenure with Cash, he penned a sizable hit for his old friend with 1968’s “Daddy Sang Bass.”
Following his stint with Cash, which ended in 1975, Perkins formed the C.P. Express with his sons Greg and Stan. He also started his own record label, Suede, on which he released two albums. His 1978 album, Ol’ Blue Suede’s Back, sold an estimated 100,000 copies in England.
In 1981 he founded the Carl Perkins Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse in his home town of Jackson, Tennessee. Each year he hosted a day-long telethon to raise funds for the center. In the 1980s, Perkins also invested in two area restaurants, one of which houses his collection of personal music memorabilia.
Perkins reunited with his surviving Sun labelmates for the historic Class of ’55 album which was recorded at the old Sun Studios in Memphis. That project also featured guest artists Rick Nelson, John Fogerty, Dave Edmunds and the Judds. In 1987 Carl was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 1992 Carl was diagnosed with throat cancer; the treatment was successful and he was pronounced cancer-free in 1993. In June 1997, he underwent surgery to repair blockage in the right fork of the carotid artery. He appeared to be recovering from that surgery until he suffered two mild strokes in late November and early December. He was showing signs of progress before suffering complications which claimed his life.
Perkins is survived by his wife, Valerie; sons, Greg, Stan and Steve; and daughter, Debbie Swift.
country.com extends its deepest sympathies to Mr. Perkins’ family and friends at this time. He will be missed.