Carl Perkins: 1932 to 1998
Owen Bradley, Carl Perkins, Cliffie Stone — the recent deaths of these country music giants raise the obvious but vexing question: Who’s gonna fill their shoes? More than just major figures, each of these men stamped their character and vision onto music that is now part of our national consciousness. Bradley gave us the lush, string-laden Nashville Sound; Perkins the vernacular of rockabilly guitar; Stone the West Coast honky-tonk that became the Bakersfield Sound of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.
Spice kids Shania and Garth will go down in history for the units they moved, Music Row producer-execs Tony Brown and Jimmy Bowen for their devotion to the bottom line; but Bradley, Perkins, and Stone loom as standard-bearers. In light of the recent passings of Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, and Bill Monroe, not to mention the declining health of Owens, Haggard, Kitty Wells, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Chet Atkins, and others, it indeed looks as though a classic era in country music is drawing to a close.
Listening today, it certainly seems as though the mix of hillbilly music and R&B that became rockabilly could only have come from the son of a West Tennessee sharecropper. Along with fellow Sun Records alums Presley, Cash and Lewis, Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer Carl Perkins — who died Jan. 19 at the age of 65 — unleashed a sound as wild and explosive as any heard in the history of pop music. Perkins never achieved Elvis-like stardom, even though Sam Phillips let Presley out of his contract in part because he believed Perkins would reach such heights. And why not? Perkins’ 1956 signature song, “Blue Suede Shoes”, was the first single ever to top the pop, country, and R & B charts simultaneously.
Perkins’ influence on the Beatles, who recorded five of his Sun classics, is as undeniable as that of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Little Richard. In addition, Perkins defined a guitar style that served as the blueprint for the playing of George Harrison, John Fogerty and BR5-49’s Chuck Mead, among others. During the 1960s, Perkins also recorded some straight country material, as well as an LP with NRBQ, but none of these recordings approximated his magnificent ’50s sides for Sun. Interestingly enough, Perkins was hardly the hep-cat of such songs as “Lend Me Your Comb”, “Movie Magg” and “Dixie Fried”. Quite the opposite, in fact: The longtime resident of Jackson, Tennessee, was a soft-spoken family man who never strayed far from his rural roots.