[Slowhand] 50 years later,
Perkins' 'Blue Suede Shoes' is still in style
An English Boy
peter_dennis_blandford_townshend at hotmail.com
Mon Jan 30 11:22:32 EST 2006
50 years later, Perkins' 'Blue Suede Shoes' is still in style
By PETE WICKHAM
The Jackson Sun
JACKSON, Tenn. The idea came in an off-handed conversation on one of those
all-night drives to the next gig.
"Well, it's one for the money ..."
It crystallized in a fleeting, angry exchange between a teenage couple
dancing at a drive-in.
"Two for the show ..."
It maybe took three hours in the middle of the night to compose and write
down on a paper sack that had been holding three potatoes.
"Three to get ready ..."
And Sam Phillips never let the recording session go past four takes,
essentially saying ...
"Go, cat, go!"
Believe it or not, the celestial event of Carl Perkins' life and perhaps
the entire rock 'n' roll era is 50 years old.
On New Year's Day 1956, Sun Records released Blue Suede Shoes a two-minute,
13-second ditty that Perkins, his brothers Jay B. and Clayton and friend
W.S. Holland had recorded just two weeks before.
"The song has huge significance to this building and business," said Nikki
Douglas, the operations manager/archivist for Sun Studios in Memphis. "This
was the first gold record on the Sun label.
"And, while Elvis was the biggest of the artists who came through these
doors, it was Blue Suede Shoes that became the first song in history to hit
No. 1 on every single chart: pop, R&B and country."
Years after discovering his influence on artists from the Beatles and Eric
Clapton all the way to Garth Brooks and The Judds, Perkins remained
incredulous, according to oldest son Stan Perkins.
"I can't tell you the number of times Dad would tell someone that one of his
guitar riffs was 'just a simple little thing,' " Stan Perkins said, "only to
be reminded, 'Yeah, but no one ever did it before you.' "
The record started slow, then took off like a rocket. It wasn't until March
1956 that it broke onto national charts. By May, it redefined "crossover
hit," eventually selling 2 million copies.
Yet while it was reaching its zenith, events were taking place that would in
essence stall Perkins' rocket ride and nearly derail his career.
"Dad wasn't a one-hit wonder, but he never had another moment like that,"
Stan Perkins said.
'A thump in your belly'
But listen to that 133 seconds of music, and understand that it came along
the moment America and its teens hit a hormonal nova.
"I heard that song for the first time when I was 11 years old, and after
that the Grand Ole Opry never made sense," said Linda McGee of the
International Rockabilly Hall of Fame in Jackson.
Mike Baker, the talent coordinator for the Shannon Street Blues Fest, is a
generation removed at 46. Still, he insists the song's nursery rhyme
beginning "was my Sesame Street."
In Perkins' biography, Go, Cat Go!, Bob Dylan is quoted as saying Perkins'
music "would create such a thump in your belly."
Though Wynonna Judd wasn't even born when Blue Suede Shoes hit its height,
she stood up at Carl Perkins' funeral eight Januaries ago and said, "When I
watched him, I realized I could only wish to be that cool."
Stan Perkins, Carl's drummer the last 20 years of his career and now keeper
of his estate, said, "I don't care what age you are. Listen to that song,
and some part of you is going to move."
And W.S. Holland, who went from thumping a rhythm on the side of Clayton
Perkins' upright bass to an improbable career as a drummer first for
Perkins, then Johnny Cash said he felt it in hundreds of late-night
sessions in studios, hotel rooms and honky-tonks.
"Carl could entertain," Holland said. "One minute he'd have you in tears,
the next you'd be up and dancing."
Even now, Stan Perkins said he can literally feel the song's warmth. "The
royalty checks each quarter pay the utilities on this big house," he said.
He just negotiated a six-figure deal with a European company that wants to
put eight seconds of the song in a commercial.
And, when the song was released, Stan marvels that his father "was trying to
get by on maybe $25 a week."
Genius on a brown paper bag
Go back to 1955, and the seeds of this story were being sown.
Carl Perkins and his band had released some marginally successful local hits
Movie Magg, Turn Around and Gone, Gone, Gone.
Like all the other Sun artists, they were hitting every Southern club, dance
hall, lodge and gym that would throw cash their way.
"We were riding with (Johnny) Cash, who was a good friend of Carl's (and
later an employer)," Holland said.
"John's got his feet propped up, and he's looking at his shoes, always
shined from his Air Force days. He said, 'Carl, you've got to write a song
about shoes.' "
"He thought John was nuts," Holland said. "Who writes songs about shoes? End
Weeks later, a gig at Tommy's Drive-In in Jackson.
"No bandstand, you just played in a corner," Holland said. "This couple in
front of us were dancing. Suddenly, the boy jumped back and said angrily,
'Don't step on my suede shoes.'
"Carl's thinking, 'Pretty girl like that, and he's worried about shoes?' "
But thoughts began to race through the mind of the 23-year-old
sharecropper's kid from Tiptonville. He rushed to the tiny rent-subsidized
apartment where his two kids and pregnant wife, Valda, were sleeping.
By dawn, the rudiments of the song were scribbled on a small grocery sack
that is now framed in the Perkins home.
His spelling (Blue Swade Shoes) was, hmm ... innovative. The song's choppy
cadence still floors Holland.
"We did it all wrong! Those breaks between 'One for the money' and the rest
of the start don't make sense. There are things about it that would never
have happened had we been taught to play," Holland said.
Even now, the 70-year-old Holland says it makes him laugh when he "sits in
with a group playing 'Blue Suede Shoes' and they ask, 'Do you want to play
it musically correctly, or do we play it right?' "
Perkins went into a panic after three takes, telling Phillips he'd made
several mistakes, among them "singing, 'Go, cat, go.' "
Phillips' response? "I heard it. You ain't changin' it."
Baker said "there are plenty of great Carl Perkins songs. But Blue Suede
Shoes is a synthesis of everything he'd picked up.
"Pop, rock, blues. It's all there."
With the song getting traction in March, Perkins and the band were scheduled
to drive from a concert in Norfolk, Va., to New York to debut on a TV
program hosted by ex-barber Perry Como (who had the syrupy No. 1 hit Hot
The moment never happened. Around dawn the car carrying Perkins' band, with
Memphis DJ Stewart Pinkham driving, plowed into a truck outside Dover, Del.
The truck driver was killed, Carl broke a collarbone, and Jay wound up in
traction with a broken neck.
While Perkins & Co. recuperated, his old Sun buddy Elvis Presley (who'd just
jumped to RCA) exploded on national television, then with a string of hits
that included the machine-gun cover of Blue Suede Shoes.
Crash and return
Stan Perkins notes that "Elvis' version of Shoes never topped 16 on the
charts, the only cover he made that didn't top the original."
But Carl's window of superstar opportunity vaporized. The next few years,
Stan said, "Dad crashed."
He battled the bottle. Jay died of a brain tumor, and Clayton started down a
path that eventually led to suicide.
Still, redemption awaited. It started on a 1964 tour of England, where
Perkins was introduced to four of his biggest fans John Lennon, Paul
McCartney, Ringo Starr and especially George Harrison.
"George once told me that you could get Elvis records anywhere in
Liverpool," Stan Perkins said, "But Carl Perkins records ... if John and
Paul would hear someone had a Perkins record, they would hitchhike across
town to borrow it."
Cash, who was fighting demons of his own with alcohol and pills, invited
Perkins to join his show, and they toured together for 10 years.
"I think John and Carl lifted each other up," said Holland, who wishes that
the Cash biopic Walk the Line would have contained, "some of the absolutely
hilarious moments with those two guys."
Baker said that he remembers rare days late in Perkins' life, "when he'd
walk into the Bandstand (a local music store), sit down with a guitar and
just start picking. A legend, just enjoying himself."
During his 22 years "watching the back of my father's head for song cues,"
Stan Perkins said he got to see his father enjoy things denied his more
"I watched him around guys like George Harrison and Eric Clapton, and I
realized the look in their eyes was the same look I had when I looked at
Dad," Stan said.
Perhaps his most lasting memory is Carl spending hours on his riding mower
tending his yard.
"Most times, he didn't need to mow his yard that much. He just liked being
out there, having people wave at him, or come up to talk," Stan said.
Stan thinks of Elvis' sad end at 42, or the tumultuous life of Jerry Lee
Lewis, But even with the cancer Carl battled in the '90s and the strokes
that eventually claimed him at age 65. Stan marvels at his father's final
"Here's a rocker who was married 45 years (Valda Perkins died last
November), surrounded by kids, grandkids, friends," Stan said. "He might
have found more success elsewhere, but I know he ended his life happy
because he stayed right here."
And unlike other artists who dread signature tunes, Perkins was always up
for one more chorus of Blue Suede Shoes.
"He never had another song as big," Stan said, "yet he was always so
grateful it came along that one time."
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