To earn some cash for a Santa Barbara child-abuse-prevention agency, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Carl Perkins will headline the sixth annual Rockabilly Roundup on Friday at the Arlington Theatre.
Perkins put rockabilly on the map in the '50s. Recording for the famous Sun Records, he sold 2 million copies of "Blue Suede Shoes" before the Elvis version came out. Selling a zillion records and being one of the original rockers along with Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, Perkins influenced countless others that came later. The Beatles, for example, recorded three of his songs.
Perkins survived a bout with throat cancer in 1991 and doesn't play as often as he used to. He has been involved in the fight against child abuse for a long time, which helps explain his appearance at this shindig, which benefits CALM (Child Abuse Listening and Mediation).
Even though it was a good fishing day in west Tennessee, Perkins consented to a phone chat.
You've had a long involvement with the fight against child abuse?
Yes, I started the first child-abuse center in Tennessee 15 years ago. Every year I do a telethon and we earn $150,000 to $200,000, plus we get clothes, toys, candy and a lot of support from local businesses. The priority is the education of the parents. Once child abuse takes place, we try to get the parents there, because for the most part, they were abused themselves. Child abuse is a cycle. If you've been abused, you're more likely to be an abuser. If you abuse once, get some help. Our aim is not to break families up but to keep them together. Some of the children we've had 15 years ago are married, but now they're loving and not abusing their children. It's about the only attempt that works. I think it's better to give than to receive, and I want to do something for my fellow man.
How 'bout rockabilly?
Rockabilly never really went down, and now it's edging up some and kinda slipping over into a lot of country. Garth Brooks, Vince Gill and those guys are slipping a rockabilly song or two onto their records. They've got more instrumentation, but the feeling is still there with the simplicity of the sound, the hard downbeat and the slappin' bass fiddle. Back in '54 or '55, Southern preachers were saying it was the devil's music, but I never felt I was doing anything wrong. We were being put down by a handful but lifted up by the American public.
It's hard to say anything is original, but rockabilly was a new form of music. It had church rhythm, black blues and country all tied together. And it was all tied together by a hip-shaker named Elvis. There couldn't have been a better door opener. Elvis couldn't help the way he danced. It was just his rhythm. He didn't copy anybody. He was all brand-new.
How 'bout those '50s?
I was poor, rawboned, half-hungry and couldn't hardly afford the gas to get to Memphis to make a record. I don't know what to compare it to--it was just a magic time. I was humbled by it all because I always thought that once you get to thinking you're a star, you're in trouble. I never wanted people to think Perkins was stuck up. I always went out of my way to speak to people.
How 'bout those Beatles?
I was touring England in '64 with Chuck Berry, which was before they ever came to America. I remember my kids liked them, and I thought they were pretty good, but I wasn't tore up. George Harrison's guitar playing reminded me of Sun Records, but I wondered why it took four people to sing one song. After about a week over there, they gave a party in my honor and I ended up on the floor playing the guitar and they were all sitting on the couch. They proceeded to sing every Carl Perkins song ever written. After that, I went home and told my kids that I hung out with those boys that looked like girls and I thought that was the end of it. But I still talk to them.
How 'bout Carl Perkins music?
My music has black man's rhythm, white man's lyrics with a bit of soul in it. It's just a feel-good groove people can snap their fingers to or tap their feet to. It's what I've lived off of all my life. Elvis, Jerry Lee and me used to call it "feel-good music" because you can't listen without moving something. You don't hear it, you feel it, and young people generally get up and shake something.
How 'bout Sun Records?
I remember I heard Elvis' first record on the radio, "Blue Moon of Kentucky," which was an old Bill Monroe classic. He played up-tempo bluegrass, and I think if he had've added a downbeat and added a lead guitar, he'd have been pretty close to rockabilly. Anyway, when I heard Elvis, a new guy on a new label, it gave me a spark of hope. So I traded some slick tires for a couple of recaps, got half a tank of gas, loaded up my brothers and headed for Memphis, 70 miles away. We found Sun, a little ol' studio, and the secretary told us we were out of luck if we wanted to audition. As we were leaving, (owner) Sam Phillips drove up in a brand-new '54 Coupe de Ville. I remember he was dressed just like his car and it was the neatest thing I ever saw. He later told me he didn't have any intention of listening to me, but I looked so pitiful. Anyway, he liked a song I wrote when I was 14, "Movie Magg," and I wrote three or four songs on the way home, and I was on my way.
How 'bout "Blue Suede Shoes"?
It was an amazing feat--it was No. 1 on all three charts, country, pop and R&B.; The kids of America, who are 50 or 60 years old now, started out as rockabilly fans and made it happen. As for the shoes, I've given away a lot of them over the years, and I'd never wear them until I was ready to go on stage. You can mess them up real easy--a pigeon can do that real good. I hated them for years, then I realized they've been very good to me. Right now, I'm happier on stage than I've ever been. There's the old and the young, and all of us in between can scrape it out. Sometimes, you reach the mountain, but most of the time we live in the valley. I'm a blessed man.
Bill Locey, who writes regularly on rock 'n' roll, has survived the mosh pit and the local music scene for many years.
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* WHAT: Sixth annual Rockabilly Roundup with Carl Perkins, the Roadhouse Rockers and guests.
* WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday.
* WHERE: Arlington Theatre, 1317 State St., Santa Barbara.
* HOW MUCH: $26.50, $21.50, $16.50.
* CALL: 963-4408.