All my life I have heard people talk about how time flies. I have never actually witnessed a clock sprout wings and take off, but as a child, that's the only way I could picture time flying. As I got older and little bit wiser, I knew clocks did not really fly and understood it was just a figure of speech—but to me, it seemed like a joke because time felt like it was crawling. For many, it becomes a reality when children are born. One minute, you're holding your precious baby; the next, they are having babies of their own. Other times we are reminded of how quickly time disappears when the anniversary of something life-changing approaches and makes us stop and say, "Where did the time go?"
This month marks the twentieth anniversary of the death of a legendary Jacksonian. A man who was bigger than life with a heart of gold. A man whose shoes—blue suede shoes, that is—are impossible to fill.
I still remember Carl. I can still see his face and his silvery, curly hair. I can hear his booming voice. I remember sitting poolside at his lake house on Pine Lake listening to sweet harmonies and his signature guitar pickin' as he sang gospel tunes with my uncle Steve Long and Dad. I can even smell the mouth-watering aroma of burgers on the grill and my grandmother's fried catfish.
I also remember January 19, 1998, the day Carl passed away. I was eleven years old. My dad and uncle went to the funeral, but I was not allowed to go; I had to go to school. Secretly, I never got over missing his funeral. It is quite possible that, as a child, I was a daydreamer with my head always in the clouds, or maybe it was the fact that no one ever enlightened me, but until that day, I had no clue who Carl Perkins was.
Born on April 9, 1932, near Tiptonville, Tennessee, Carl Lee Perkins was the son of poor sharecroppers and spent many of his days working in the cotton fields where his love for gospel music began. On the weekends, he would listen to the Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts and play along on a guitar his father had made him out of an old cigar box and a broom. When a neighbor offered to sell his guitar to Carl, his father bought the old beat-up instrument with worn-out strings for a few dollars. Carl began to teach himself to play, learning songs by ear by picking each note out from memory until he was able to play a phrase that was recognizable.
An African-American farmhand named John Westbrook befriended the young aspiring artist and taught him to "feel" his guitar by feeling the vibrations. Maybe it was coincidence, maybe it was fate, but as he played, the worn-out strings would break, resulting in him having to retie them since he could not afford to buy new ones. The knots in the strings cut his fingers as he would slide to another note, so he began to bend the notes. By bending the strings, he stumbled on a note that is slightly lower than what was expected; this flatter note is called a blue note. The blue note would be the prelude to him creating what is now known as the "Carl Perkins style."
In January of 1947, the Perkins family moved to Madison County. In his early teens, Carl began playing the country music chord progression I-IV-V and wrote a song that would eventually get him his first break called "Let Me Take You to the Movie, Magg." Carl and his brothers, Jay and Clayton, formed the Perkins Brothers Band earning tips as entertainers at bars and taverns around Jackson and Bemis. Carl's playing style was recognized by many as an unusual blues-like style. After several attempts of sending rough recordings to major recording studios and hearing nothing from them, Carl and his brothers headed for Memphis with the hopes of finding "a man who understands what we're doing." In 1954, Sun Records producer, Sam Phillips, signed the band. Less than a year later, Carl released two songs including "Movie, Magg." He would record more songs under Sam Phillips, but his music was no more than a regional success.
In the autumn of 1955, Carl was playing at a club in Jackson when he saw a dancer become angry with his date for dancing on his shoes. Carl said he heard the man say, “Uh-uh, don’t step on my suedes.” He was stunned to see this man, who was with the most beautiful girl at the dance, be more concerned about his shoes being stepped on than he was with the woman herself. Henry Harrison, friend of Carl and owner of the International Rock-A-Billy Hall of Fame and Museum in Jackson, said that Carl could not sleep that night because all he could think about was that man and his shoes.
Later he called Sam Phillips to tell him that he had written a new song called "Blue Suede Shoes." The rest is history.
The song became a chart success reaching the number one spot on Billboard Magazine's country music chart and number two on Billboard Best Sellers popular music chart, and Carl would be the first country artist to reach the number three spot on the R&B music charts. The song would also become the first song in the Rock-A-Billy genre to receive a golden record, according to Harrison.
The Perkins Brothers began to see their careers take off with the success of "Blue Suede Shoes," however, that success would be short-lived. The brothers were scheduled to appear on The Perry Como Show in New York City, but they never made it. As they were driving through Delaware, their driver, Dick Stewart, fell asleep at the wheel, and their vehicle collided into the backside of a pick-up truck and crashed into a water-filled ditch. W.S. "Fluke" Holland, the band's drummer, saved Carl from drowning in the ditch, but Carl and his brothers sustained injuries that would disrupt the momentum of their career. The driver of truck did not survive the crash.
The crash was the beginning of a decline that the brothers were unable to stop. A few years after the accident, Jay Perkins died from a brain tumor while Carl hit an artistic slump and developed a drinking problem. Carl’s career continued its descent.
Shortly after the accident, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis joined him in the studio for a one-day recording session that was heard around the world. The media would dub the group as "The Million Dollar Quartet." Little did he know, his influence reached across the oceans. The Beatles' George Harrison claims he learned to play guitar to Carl's albums and briefly changed his name to "Carl Harrison" early in his music career in honor of Carl. Carl’s career never reached the heights of that of Elvis Presley, however, his name was recognized and revered all throughout the music world. Carl would continue writing songs, singing, and playing guitar with Johnny Cash and several other artists for many years.
Carl Perkins was an international star. While it is impossible to list every accomplishment that Carl had achieved throughout his career and note every influence worldwide, he quite possibly made the greatest impact on Jackson. Carl continued to live in Jackson with his wife, Valda, and four children, Stan, Greg, Steve, and Debbie. After seeing a newspaper article about a local child who had died because of child abuse, Carl recognized a need in West Tennessee. He contacted his friend Henry Harrison to help him start a project that may be his greatest legacy, the Carl Perkins Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse.
With Harrison at the helm as the first president of the center, they were able to raise enough money to begin the dream with the help of the Exchange Club and the talents of The Statler Brothers. This would be the first child abuse prevention center in the state of Tennessee and the fourth in the nation. In 1982, the center held its first Circles of Hope Telethon hosted by Carl and another Jackson legend, Cousin Tuny. The telethon raised $10,000 in its inaugural year. Carl’s dream was to make sure no more children would die of child abuse, and through the center, his dreams were becoming a reality. Carl would continue to fight for the children of West Tennessee even through his own fight with throat cancer. Though he conquered cancer, it was a series of strokes in 1997 that would ultimately lead to his death in January of 1998.
Oh, how time flies! Carl has been gone for twenty years, but it seems like it was just yesterday that music legends and stars flowed into the Hub City to gather at Lambuth University’s R.E. Womack Memorial Chapel to celebrate his life. Those in attendance included Wynona Judd, Billy Ray Cyrus, Garth Brooks, Sam Phillips, Jerry Lee Lewis, and George Harrison, just to name a few. Of course, his service was overflowing with music and love, evidence of Carl’s many friends.
Once the service was over and the celebrities had gone home, all that was left was a city mourning its legend and a family who had just lost their world. Carl’s wife and children were left to continue what Carl has started. Carl’s first child, Stan, did just that by following in his father’s blue-suede footsteps. Stan was the drummer for his father’s band, with his brother Greg also a part of the group for many years. After Carl died, Stan went on to show how he could carry on his father’s legacy with his own talents and style. As an accomplished guitarist, drummer, and singer/songwriter, Stan plays the Rock-A-Billy sound with his own high-energy style. In 2010, Stan teamed up with The Crickets' lead singer, Jerry Naylor, and recorded a tribute to his father called “To Carl: Let It Vibrate.” While Stan continues to wow audiences with his rockin’ beat and incredible showmanship, he also reminds the toe-tapping cool cats everywhere of the influences the “King of Rock-A-Billy” had on today’s music. Like his father, he has also been inducted into the Rock-A-Billy Hall of Fame and is a Rock-A-Billy legend on his own.
I could write forever on Carl, but out of respect for the reader, I’ll refrain. There are so many great things to be said about this electric yet humble man with a laugh that could shake the foundation. Carl truly loved God. He gave so much of himself to the Lord, his family, his friends, and the city of Jackson. He loved my family dearly, and we loved him. If you want to learn more about Carl, visit Henry Harrison at the International Rock-A-Billy Hall of Fame located at 105 North Church Street in Downtown Jackson. Henry is more than happy to tell you all about him because he was there when it all transpired. For now, let us take a moment to remember the “King of Rock-A-Billy,” this legendary man who changed the course of music, the man who gave hope to the children without hope. Let us remember Carl Perkins.
Casey Manner is a West Tennessee native with a love for writing and jewelry making. She teaches preschool and she sings and plays the ukulele in her family’s Southern Gospel band, The Long Family. She is a die-hard New Orleans Saints fan and loves everything about New Orleans. Casey currently lives in Three Way with her husband Chris and their son Elijah. If you see Casey around town, shout “Who Dat” or “Go Saints” and you just may have a new best friend.
Photography provided by Casey Manner.