Although Carl Perkins only had one major hit, it was a pretty big one. (Even if it’s now more closely associated with Elvis, Carl wrote it, and sold more copies, too.)
Growing up in rural Tennessee, Carl and his brother Jay listened to country and church songs on the radio. Scraping together enough cash to purchase beat up, second-hand guitars, they developed a repertoire and soon got regular work playing bars and roadhouses on Friday and Saturday nights. Barely into their teens, they grew up fast, and what they couldn’t convey with their music, they sometimes had to punctuate with their fists.
After forming a full band, Carl made his way to Memphis in 1954 and got himself signed to Sun Records, home to Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. He played a style known as rockabilly, a kind of rocked-up version of country which his label-mates also helped to pioneer. But Carl had his own style, honed by years of playing with barbed-wire guitar strings (well, not exactly . . . he couldn’t afford new strings, so when they broke he simply tied them back together with little knots and kept on rockin’.)
It was Cash who—while on tour with Perkins in 1955—told Carl about an airman he knew while serving in the military a few years before who referred to his combat boots as “blue suede shoes.” Cash suggested Perkins write a song about it, to which Carl retorted, in effect, “Shoes? What do I know about shoes?”
Playing at a dance a few months later, Perkins noticed a couple dancing near the stage. In between songs he heard the man sharply chastising his date, “Don’t step on my suedes!” He went home that night and wrote “Blue Suede Shoes” on a potato sack, because he had no paper. He and his band recorded it two weeks later and Sun released the single two weeks after that, on New Year’s Day, 1956. It sold over a million copies and hit the top reaches of the pop, country, and R&B charts.
Carl Perkins had some big country hits over the subsequent decades, but never touched the Top 40 pop charts again. Musical styles changed but ol’ Carl never did — he continued playing rockabilly til the day he died, directly influencing everyone from The Beatles to Dave Edmunds to The Stray Cats along the way.
It’s one for the money, two for the show . . .