Almost 15 years after his death, rock legend Carl Perkins is set to receive one more honor.
A life-sized silhouette of him and other music legends will be ringed around a monument shaped like a Epiphone guitar next month. The monument is meant to honor the musical greats who played at clubs along U.S. 67 in the early days of rock ’n’ roll.
Perkins’ own early days gave no hint of the fame he would achieve. His life began in Tennessee’s sweltering cotton fields during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Each day Perkins, his parents and siblings emerged from a dilapidated shack they called home and went into the fields to earn a few cents a day. They were the only white family on the plantation, picking cotton side-by-side with poor blacks just two generations removed from slavery.
Perkins’ destiny was to toil as a farm hand. And then a black man, “Uncle John,” taught him to play the guitar.
He went on to write a No. 1 hit, inspire the most influential band in music history and create a genre of music. But he also suffered from chronic alcoholism, and he spent most of his career knowing he never rose to the heights of many of his contemporaries and friends, including Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley.
But he did have many friends. When he died in January 1998, George Harrison sang at his funeral, which was attended by thousands, including Garth Brooks and Jerry Lee Lewis.
“Carl Perkins had it all,” his son, Stan Perkins, told The Sun. “He could play the guitar. He wrote his own songs. The only problem he had is he didn’t have the looks of an Elvis Presley.”
Carl and two brothers played in taverns and honky tonks near their home in Jackson, Tenn., in the late 1940s. He often picked cotton or did factory work to make ends meet, Stan said.
By 1954 he’d signed with Sun Records in Memphis and toured with Presley. Cash soon joined the group ensemble that performed at venues throughout Northeast Arkansas, including The Silver Moon, B and I’s King of Clubs, Red’s Clover and the Bloody Bucket.
Rural venues in Jackson, Lawrence and Randolph counties wouldn’t seem the most likely places to develop a national music career, but they were places to earn a following and make some money. Prosecuting Attorney Henry Boyce said many of the clubs allowed drinking and gambling, even though those were illegal — and the gambling profits allowed the owners to pay acts such as Elvis more money than could earn in Memphis.
In 1955 Perkins wrote and performed “Blue Suede Shoes,” the first song ever to rise to the top of the country, pop and rhythm and blues charts. It went head-to-head with Elvis’s classic “Heartbreak Hotel.”
Elvis later covered “Blue Suede Shoes,” and most people think it was originally sung by Elvis, Stan said. Elvis’s dance moves and sultry looks gave him an edge over the subdued Perkins.
“James Dean died, and the black teenagers had Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry,” Stan said. “White teenagers were searching for something. They didn’t have their white God.”
Perkins’ smash hit became his albatross — it was impossible to live up to. Subsequent songs never came close to becoming No. 1 hits.
Sun Records quickly turned its focus and resources from Perkins to its firebrand piano player, Jerry Lee Lewis. In 1956 Sun Studios hosted Perkins, Lewis, Cash and Presley for a jam session. A photo of the four has become an immortal image of what’s been dubbed “The Million Dollar Quartet.”
But Carl Perkins wasn’t a millionaire — far from it, according to his son. By 1958 he was broke. His inability to write another hit and the loss of his brother Jay, who succumbed to cancer around the same time, drove Perkins to drink, Stan said.
Perkins still continued to write and perform. In 1964 he toured Great Britain with Chuck Berry and several other musicians. One night he got to meet The Beatles, and was surprised and delighted to learn that Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were all big fans.
Harrison told him that before they were famous, the “Fab Four” would listen to his music — although it was hard to find in Europe. When a ship docked in Liverpool after visiting the United States, Lennon and McCartney would walk across the city and try to borrow copies of Perkins’ records from the crew. The two would bring the records back and play them slowly, writing down the words and learning the intricate chords of the rockabilly sound.
Harrison and Perkins became close friends and played on stage together. The Beatles covered several Carl Perkins songs, including “Honey Don’t” — the B-side of “Blue Suede Shoes” — and “Matchbox.”
Stan Perkins met the group in the 1960s and got an autographed picture. He took it to school to show off to his classmates.
“I wasn’t a great athlete, but for one day I was the most popular guy in school,” Stan said. “Girls who normally wouldn’t give me a second look gave me a stare that day. But it was only for that day.”
It wasn’t uncommon for Stan to find music legends staying the night at their Jackson home, he said. Lewis was a guest, and Orbison would stay for weeks at a time.
Stan tells the story of a time Orbison recorded a song in Nashville and immediately drove to Jackson to let Perkins listen to it. Perkins wasn’t home, but Stan and his mother were, and they got to hear Orbison’s new song: “Pretty Woman.”
“I can remember that like it was yesterday,” Stan said. “I often tell that story when I’m on stage.”
Carl Perkins performed with Cash and others throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. He and Cash became good friends — Perkins was a recovering alcoholic, and Cash had struggled with drug addiction, and Stan said the two supported each other’s fight.
By the mid-1970s Perkins began a group with Stan and another son, Greg. Throughout the 1980s and early ’90s Perkins performed with his sons and other legends. He wrote songs for groups such as The Judds and worked with McCartney and Bob Dylan, among others. One night he appeared on stage with Eric Clapton, Harrison and Starr. The guitar he played that night was taken to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and it remained there until after Perkins’ death. Stan said he then took the guitar to Los Angeles and gave it to a special friend — Harrison. At Perkins’ funeral he had sung “Your True Love,” a Perkins song that was released in 1957.
Harrison looked uncomfortable accepting the guitar, but “I told him, ‘There’s no one else in the world I would rather give this guitar to than you,’” Stan said, remembering that a tear rolled down the former Beatle’s face. Harrison died in 2001.
Although Perkins has been dubbed the “King of Rockabilly” and is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he was haunted by the legacy of his lone smash hit. But it was a song that helped define a generation, and that’s a legacy his son warmly embraces.
“Carl Perkins lived in a nice comfortable home in Jackson until he died,” Stan said. “He never had a fence put around his house. He never needed one. I think in some ways that made him very lucky.”