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All the Way From Memphis

Carl Perkins

Meanwhile the Grandaddy of Rock and Roll gives his version of how it all began to Richard Walmsley

He might well have invented Rockabilly; he inspired the Beatles, Eric Clapton, the Stones and many more; he was a recording pioneer... oh, and he wrote a great song about footwear. Ladies and Gentleman, Mr. Carl Perkins.

"Nashville had country music, Memphis had the soul
White boy had the rhythm and that started Rock an' Roll
An' I was there when it happened so I guess I oughta know,
I was there when it happened an' I watched Memphis give birth to Rock an' Roll."

Speaking, or rather rapping, this documentary verse is none other than Carl Perkins, one of the most influential figures, if not the father, of Rock and Roll. Well he calls it Rockabilly actually.

"What I play was called Rockabilly, an' I still think that's what it is. I ain't changed. They started calling it Rock an' Roll an' making it bigger and louder, but I still play what I played when I was a kid."

We've had the Stray Cats, and over the last few years there's been a thriving underground of Young Rockabillies, but even so, there are probably many who are unaware of exactly who or what Carl Perkins is.

Most obviously, perhaps, Perkins is the writer of Blue Suede Shoes, a hit for him, and subsequently for Elvis Presley, which was the first song ever to top the US R&B, Country and Blues charts. As a kid from a poor family in a little town in Tennessee, Carl came upon Rockabilly quite by chance, possibly even invented it. The son of the only white sharecropper in Tennessee, Carl was perfectly placed to blend the Gospel and Blues music he heard on the plantations with the country sounds he heard on the Radio from Chicago and Grand Ole Opry. At the age of four his father fashioned for him a contraption out of a cigar box, a broom handle and some baling wire that began his life long fascination with the guitar. His father however knew only a couple of chords, so out in the fields was where Carl ventured in order to learn his instrument.

"The first guitar I got, my dad gave about three dollars and a half for it, but I haven't owned one since that I was as proud of. I hadn't anyone to teach me, but I lived in West Tennessee on a cotton plantation, and the only dude that played any at all was an old black man by the name o' John Westbook. John played a little Blues. I thought he was great, but he was because he took time to show a little white boy his lick. I just speeded up his Blues; if you listen to Blue Suede Shoes the guitar playing on that is just speeded up simple black Blues. It's just Blues applied to Country. That's all Rockabilly is."

Blue Suede Shoes is undoubtedly one of the most celebrated songs of all time, and no doubt at the heart of Carl Perkins' fortune. Yet it, too, rose virtually spontaneously, out of nothing.

"It was one of the easiest songs I ever wrote in my life. See I heard a boy say that to a pretty girl. I was playing at a Honky Tonk right outside my home town, Jackson, Tennessee. An' I'd been watching this couple dance, an' they could really go, an' I did notice that he had on a pair of them shoes. She was really a pretty girl and she had on one of them pleated skirts so that when they turn around they're really excitin'. And that dude, he told her not to step on his suedes, and that made me kinda mad. Even if she had stepped on his toe, I thought, 'Well you're crazy man, you think that much of a pair of shoes. That's a good lookin' girl.' An' it bothered me. An' I went home and went to bed. I must have laid there an hour but it wouldn't go away. I thought of the old nursery rhyme 'It's one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, four to go. 'An' I jumped out of bed an' got my little ole guitar an' I sang 'Well it's one for the money, du du, two for the sho, du du, three to get ready now go cat go but don't you..." Then the only trouble I had with the song was picking out the words I wanted to use, there were so many comin'. In 10 minutes or less I had it exactly like it stayed for 30 years. I was getting excited an' couldn't find anything to write on, so I took three Irish potatoes out of bag an' I wrote Blue Suede Shoes on that sack. An' I didn't know how to spell suede; SWADE is the way I wrote it."

Carl's first electric guitar was another home made effort, a Harmony acoustic which he fitted with a De Armond pickup in the sound hole. He then traded his bicycle for an amplifier and was ready to roll. His first really well made guitar was a Gibson Les Paul made in 1953 which was actually far too expensive for him to buy outright, but which the concerned shop owner allowed him to buy for five dollars a week — with no deposit. Finally, after having a hit with Blue Suede Shoes, Leo Fender invited him along to his factory in California.

"I liked his instruments — the Stratocaster — not because he gave them to me, but because I developed an ear for the sound. There's something about those Fenders being quick. They go with Rockabilly music."

Les Paul had a profound effect on Carl's playing style, and his imitations of what Les Paul was able to do using a Slap Back echo unit led Carl to develop a very distinctive style, "I didn't have an echo. There was a guy by the name o' Les Paul who came out in the early fifties. I was knocked out by the clicking sound he got. I didn't know that he was doing it with tape machines, and I was trying to figure out how he did that. As a result, I was clickin' my fingers up on the frets. After I'd made my lick I would pop it and just touch it with the pick. You had to work pretty hard at doin' that but it became a sound for me. A year or two later they started makin' the amps, but I'd already got attached to what I was doing an' I never quit it. It's a double up lick."

Carl's slap back technique wouldn't have been possible without his combined use of finger and pick styles.

"It's ironic that my style is a finger pickin' style. We were a very poor family and we just had one comb. An' on the big end of the comb, I could sneak one out and, boy, it made a good pick. Cause I didn't have guitar picks. I didn't have no money an' they didn't have guitar picks in the little town I lived in. Finally I got so many of the comb teeth out my daddy wondered what was happening. So I was forced to do it with my fingers. So when I did get to use a pick I still had control with my fingers."

"Drummer boy was beatin' on drum just clickin 'an 'goin' wild,
Bass fiddle picker was a-clickin 'an a-clackin' just a-rockin' in a different style.
Guitar playing, the piano pumpin' and the lead player knockin' out the blues
Long tall Sam was swinging and swaying singin' some ba' Blue Suede Shoes."

So the tale continued. On the strength of a song written at the age of 14, Carl was signed up to Sam Phillips' pioneering Sun record label. The resources at Phillips' Memphis Studio were very limited; a Webb Chord two track machine and two microphones, one for the singer and one for the instruments of the band. Nevertheless the sound which he wrought from his signings such as Carl, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison stands in Rock history as one of the most distinctive and powerful.

"Whatever you played, lived. You couldn't play it over. But you know, Sam Phillips has to be regarded as some sort of musical genius with his little record company down there. Many times on some of those old Sun things, we'd listen to a playback an' I'd say, 'Mr Phillips I can sing the song better than that.' He said, 'You might sing it better, but you won't ever pick that guitar that good again.' He was interested in the overall sound. A lot of those ole records had bad mistakes on 'em. But even if you made a mistake in one part of the picking verse, if that next one was hot enough he'd say, 'Hey man, that's too good to not put it out.' We didn't argue with him. We'd make a suggestion, and he'd say do it again. But when the record came out it would always be that one that he liked. Elvis; some of his ole Sun things he didn't like 'em at all, but I think they were Some of the best stuff he ever did."

The best Sun records cut by Perkins, Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis were all done with just two mikes, because that was all that Sam Phillips had. However, it was the ingenuity of placing those two microphones, and the amplifiers, that made Sun records sound different.

"He was so canny about sound. Back then I played a Fender Bassman amp. I got an Echosonic amp with a tape delay in the bottom of it from a guy who had made one for Chet Atkins. But before I had any echo at all, Sam would put my amp facing the corner of the studio and he'd put a piece of pasteboard forcing the sound to go into the corner. He also got ta doin' that with the singer. It was real weird. You'd stand facing the corner. I guess he'd heard about a baffle, but it was a home made thing he used, with a piece of pasteboard behind you forcing all the sound into the mike, but letting it move a little I guess before it got to it, 'cause this time the mike was in the corner.

"Well some folks called it the Devil's music, others said it wouldn't last long.
Thirty one years since we started Hockin' proves somebody was wrong.
In '64 the Fabulous Four was Rock an'Roll's best friend
'Cause the Beatles and the Stones drove the ole beat home and the world went crazy again,
But I was here when it happened so I guess I oughta know..."

His hair may be grey, and he may not be as slim as he used to be, but Carl Perkins continues to write songs, record, and to perform all over the States. His two sons make up the rest of his touring band playing bass and drums and they tour around in their own bus. Earlier this year, Chips Moman, the founder of Stax records, suggested the idea of having a Sun records reunion, resulting in the recording of an album's worth of material featuring Carl, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis, soon to be released. Far from being a contribution to nostalgia, Carl insists that it contains some of the finest singing and playing they have ever done. The way it was recorded and the styles of playing have progressed too.

"Well it was different when we all came back, 'cause we had about a million dollars' worth of equipment in a van outside the studio. Also I like the click of the old upright bass because that's all we had back then. I like the looks, an' they do have a magic about them. That slappin' and clickin' fills up a good rhythm hole in a Rock an' Roll sound, but I'm glad that the electric bass has come along 'cause it gives a record a bottom. So I like to use both of them on a record, an' I did that at Sun Records this year. The electric bass is concentrating on the Dum-Dum-Dum-Dum-Dum — he's hitting the main rhythm out, an' yer upright's getting the DumtikkaDumtikkaDumtikka, in between the basic four four of the electric. I like to do it that way, I still play the same music; there's magic in a upright bass just like there's magic in a '34 Ford. But you don't take a '34 Ford to Daytona or you're gonna get beat."

The Holiday Inn in Knightsbridge is a long way from Jackson, Tennessee. And this is 1985. It's taken 31 years, but here in England Perkins feels he's finally reached the peak of his career.

For the past five years or so he had been obsessed with the idea of mounting a huge television extravaganza by amassing some of the best guitar players in the world in one virtually spontaneous musical jamboree. His plans came to fruition after he sent a video message to stars like George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and other musicians like Ringo Starr. The resulting programme, to be transmitted worldwide on New Year's Eve, excelled his wildest dreams.

"I didn't want to put together a slick polished thing that you see all the time on television. I wanted it to appear we were having fun doing what we were doing, an' it fell into that groove. They just let the cameras roll after the show an' I think they got the biggest part of the show then."

For some of the musicians like George Harrison, it was the first time they had played live in front of an audience for several years. Eric Clapton, too, had to be on his mettle.

"We didn't rehearse. We ran through one time things that George and Ringo were goin' to do. Eric didn't even get to rehearse. I went to his town on Friday night to be on his show to rehearse the song me an' him did last night. I just walked out an' plugged in."

Whatever the outcome of the show, it's clearly had a profound effect on the 53 year old musician. It was in lowered and reverential tones that he summed up his impressions of the performance.

"It's been one of the most exciting weeks of my life. You know, if God's good enough to leave me here 50 more years I can never expect to experience anything bigger. Now I'm really on fire, I think last night was the ultimate of my life."

Previous Article in this issue

Feelers On The Dealers

Next article in this issue

The Musical Micro

International Musician & Recording World - Copyright: Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.


International Musician - Jan 1986


Carl Perkins

Interview by Richard Walmsley

Previous article in this issue:

> Feelers On The Dealers

Next article in this issue:

> The Musical Micro

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