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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Monday, April 09, 2007


Were he still alive, Carl Perkins would be 75 today.

(Photo shows him onstage c.1958; taken by "Jay Harrington's mother", unnamed, on the site

To mark this anniversary, here's the entry on him in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Perkins, Carl [1932 - 1998]
Carl Perkins was born in Lake County, Tennessee, on April 9, 1932. Hearing ELVIS PRESLEY for the first time at the age of 22 meant recognising the same mad amalgam of styles he was already fooling with himself. ‘When I heard Elvis singing “Blue Moon Of Kentucky”,’ said Perkins, ‘I knew I had a future in music. It was the same sound my band was making.’

The band comprised Carl on electric guitar and vocals, and his brothers Jay (on acoustic guitar) and Clayton (stand-up bass). They’d grown up in a largely black community, in which the division wasn’t black or white but rich or poor. ‘You either worked the dirt or you owned it,’ said Carl, ‘and we worked it.’ Thus he was raised on country music and the blues, and as it happened the man who taught him guitar was black. ‘He wasn’t no great guitarist, but he could play these little blues licks, bending the notes like I hadn’t heard them doing on the Grand Ole Opry.’

Like so many, Perkins was drawn to Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios in Memphis, and Phillips signed him up. In late 1955 he was a support act to Presley on the Western Swing Jamboree Tour, and subsequently one of the so-called Million Dollar Quartet.

Unlike Presley, Perkins was as much lead-guitarist as singer, and composed his own material (though often by the brazen refashioning of older songs). He made only seven singles before being lured away from the Sun ‘family’ to the corporate graveyard of Columbia Records, Nashville, and alcoholism. Yet these few early recordings established Perkins as an influential guitarist - influential on how rock’n’roll guitar-work would be - whose playing was distinctive, creative, often exploratory and always interesting. These sessions yielded three Perkins songs that immediately became rock’n’roll standards: ‘Matchbox’, ‘Honey Don’t!’ and, pre-eminently, ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, the first, and possibly only, rockabilly million-seller, and the perfect expression of a restless generation’s innocent embrace of the new 1950s boom economy, the escape from post-war drear, and the fresh discovery of clothes, music, language and leisure-habits distinct from parental ones. Recorded and released in January 1956, it immediately became Sun Records’ biggest single, outselling all their Elvis records just as Elvis had moved to RCA Victor, where the A&R men were set to wondering if they’d ‘signed the wrong one’. But in March 1956 Carl and brother Jay were badly injured (Jay died two years later) when their driver fell asleep at the wheel en route to New York where they were to perform their smash-hit on Perry Como’s nationwide TV show. Carl lay in hospital while his big-time moment passed.

Myth had Perkins feeling that if it hadn’t been for that accident, he might have become the hot phenomenon of rock in place of Elvis. He never suffered this delusion, which would have meant misunderstanding completely the importance of sex in music. On the contrary, he summed up the situation with self-deprecation and wit: ‘Elvis,’ he said, ‘was the only one of us who didn’t look like Mister Ed.’

If Carl would never have broken out of the world that fed his inspiration, this was as much his strength as his limitation. ‘Put Your Cat Clothes On’ was another call to sartorial Saturday night action, while his unusually tough ‘Dixie Fried’ gave a glimpse of how wild that action could be in the roadhouses Perkins and his band had started out playing. The genial Perkins wordplay was strangely at odds with his voice, which only erratically carried authenticating energy, and was, when not fired up, as lacking in sharpness as in sexiness. Perhaps the essential dullness of his voice is what kept him the perfect rockabilly icon: he never stopped sounding candidly hick.

In 1964 Carl toured Britain as support to CHUCK BERRY, and found himself revered, not least by THE BEATLES, who recorded several of his songs. But with little tangible career left, he joined JOHNNY CASH’s live show. He claimed that he helped Cash off drugs while Cash got him off booze. He stayed with him for over ten years.

That’s how he came to play guitar on the 1969 Dylan-Cash duet of ‘Girl Of The North Country’ on Dylan’s Nashville Skyline - and on the many other Dylan-Cash duets recorded at the same day’s session. Around 14 takes from this session have circulated, including an attractive version of the Jack Clement song ‘Guess Things Happen That Way’, but none has been released. The song ‘Champaign, Illinois’, jointly written by Dylan and Perkins, and which Perkins duly recorded and released, comes from 1970.

Splitting with Cash in 1976, Perkins tried to re-start his own career, using his sons as his rhythm section, but though he held the respect of other musicians for his place in rock history, he had nothing but a handful of ever-tamer oldies to offer. Back in Britain in the late 1970s, he was easily upstaged by BO DIDDLEY, as he was by JERRY LEE LEWIS at 1981’s Wembley Country Festival. His decision to wear powder-blue Elvis-in-Vegas stage clothes, bouffanty hair and a fake tan did not help.

Late in life he composed a no.1 country hit by the Judds, ‘Let Me Tell You About Love’, and ‘Restless’. In 1986 came a TV Special filmed in London, ‘A Rockabilly Session - Carl Perkins and Friends’, the friends including GEORGE and RINGO, the inevitable ERIC CLAPTON and others. After ROY ORBISON’s death, Perkins was mooted as his replacement in THE TRAVELING WILBURYS, but it never happened.

In Jackson, Tennessee, however, on November 10, 1994, he was brought onstage at the end of a Dylan concert, and sang his classic, ‘Matchbox’, backed by Dylan and the Never-Ending Tour band plus his own guitar. (Dylan had also played around with a version of ‘Matchbox’ during his studio session with George Harrison in New York City on May 1, 1970.)

Carl Perkins was the only rockabilly hero to write a song as big-selling and as famous as those of the seminal giants like LITTLE RICHARD or Chuck Berry. That’s why, within the rockabilly genre, he has no equal in stature. But that is another way of saying that when rockabilly grew into rock’n’roll, and later into rock, Perkins stayed behind.

Despite the suicide of his brother Clayton in the 1970s, and his own throat cancer some years later, he continued to perform and record right up till his own death, which was on January 19, 1998 in Jackson, Tennessee. He was 65.

Two days after his death, at one of those shared-bill concerts by Dylan and VAN MORRISON, the two of them sang ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ in tribute at Madison Square Garden, during Morrison’s set. They repeated this tribute three nights later in Boston. At Perkins’ funeral that same day - at which George Harrison played an early Perkins song on guitar - Bob Dylan sent a note, which was read out. ‘He really stood for freedom. That whole sound stood for all the degrees of freedom. It would just jump right off the turntable. We wanted to go where that was happening.’

And it was true that Dylan had wanted to go there very early on. One of the bits of song on the recently-discovered 1956 recording of Dylan and his friends singing was of another Carl Perkins record from that very year: his minor hit ‘Boppin’ The Blues’.

[Carl Perkins: ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ c/w ‘Honey Don’t!’, Memphis Jan 1956, Sun 234, Memphis, 1956; ‘Matchbox’, Memphis, 30 Jan 1957, Sun 261, Memphis, 1957 (an earlier cut, Memphis, 4 Dec 1956, remained unissued until the box-set Carl Perkins: The Sun Years, Charley, London, c.1980); ‘Champaign, Illinois’, nia, 1970; ‘Boppin’ The Blues’, Memphis, 1956, Sun 243, Memphis, 1956. Perkins on the Dylan-Cash duets, Nashville, 18 Feb 1969.]


Blogger Johnada said...

Hello Mr. Gray,
I am a music editor for a local online magazine in Champaign, IL. I am currently researching an article about the song "Champaign, Illinois" that Dylan gave to Carl (as referenced in this entry). I was wondering if you might be available to answer a few questions - via email. I can be reached at

John Steinbacher
Music Editor
Smile Politely (

8:41 pm  
Blogger Johnada said...

I should have mentioned that Bob Dylan is performing in Champaign in two weeks and I hope to publish this piece at the end of next week.

8:42 pm  

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