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Carl Perkins; Rock Pioneer Wrote ‘Blue Suede Shoes’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Carl Perkins, a pioneer of rockabilly music remembered for his classic song “Blue Suede Shoes” and for his influence on Elvis Presley and the Beatles, died Monday. He was 65.

Perkins died at Jackson-Madison County General Hospital in Nashville of complications of three strokes that he suffered in November and December. He had also endured bouts with lung and throat cancer.

His recording of “Blue Suede Shoes"--which sold 2 million copies before Presley did the song--was the first and one of the few records ever to reach the top of the sales charts in all three major categories: pop, country, and rhythm and blues.

The son of a Tennessee tenant farmer, Perkins was 7 when he started playing a guitar that his father made from a cigar box, a broomstick and baling wire.

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He became a farmer, a bakery worker and a disc jockey, but continued to play, sing and write country songs. After organizing a band, he got an audition with Sam Phillips of Sun Record Co., the same Memphis recording studio that spawned Presley and popularized rockabilly, a fusion of country, rhythm and blues and rock music.

Perkins’ first recording, “Movie Magg,” generated few sales, as did his second. The third, on Dec. 19, 1955, was “Blue Suede Shoes.”

Johnny Cash, a Sun colleague and friend who later hired Perkins for his own band, was the one who suggested writing a song about such shoes, Perkins told Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn in 1969.

“I didn’t know what [Cash] meant at first,” Perkins said. “A few nights later, though, I saw this boy dancing with the cutest girl you ever saw and he was telling her to keep off his shoes. Could you imagine this beautiful girl and all this guy was worried about was his shoes?”

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Perkins might have soared to Presley’s career heights but for a near-fatal automobile accident. He was on his way to New York City in March 1956 to appear on “The Perry Como Show” and “The Ed Sullivan Show” as one of the first new country-rock singers on network television. The car crashed near Dover, Del., killing Perkins’ brother and leaving Perkins with a broken neck.

The wreck also shattered Perkins’ confidence in his musical ability, and he stopped writing and singing for a few years. Meanwhile, Presley introduced rockabilly to the nation and made musical history, singing “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “Blue Suede Shoes” on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s “Stage Show” on CBS.

Touring England with Chuck Berry in 1964, Perkins met the Beatles.

Three of his songs, “Honey Don’t,” “Matchbox” and “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby,” were featured on early Beatles albums. Beatles George Harrison and Ringo Starr appeared with him in a 1986 cable television special in London called “Carl Perkins and Friends: A Rockabilly Session.”

Although Perkins never became a major solo singing star, he remained a solid songwriter, singer and acoustic guitarist, influencing generations of pop singers.

“Carl Perkins,” Hilburn said Monday, “is one of the few artists elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame almost solely based on musical influence rather than popular appeal. Though ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ was his only Top 10 hit, the singer-guitarist brought a rawness and passion to his music that spoke to legions of musicians, from the Beatles to John Fogerty, in its purity and innocence.

“Where so many ‘50s figures worked hard at injecting a rebellious or other novelty teen attitudes in their records for marketing purposes,” Hilburn said, “Perkins’ singles exuded a sense of genuine celebration drawn straight from the country and blues musical roots that he loved. It was music that was limited in its ambition and range, but which in Perkins’ joyous records were wonderfully engulfing and inspiring.”

Perkins wrote Cash’s hit “Daddy Sang Bass” and in the early 1980s fought for the official release of the album “Million-Dollar Quartet,” the recording of a Sun Records jam session in the 1950s featuring Presley, Perkins, Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.

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In 1986, Perkins joined Cash, Lewis and Roy Orbison on a new album, “Class of ’55.”

Perkins also wrote such hits as “So Wrong” for Patsy Cline, “Silver and Gold” for Dolly Parton, “Let Me Tell You About Love” for the Judds and “A Man on His Own” for George Strait.

That stellar fame eluded him never seemed to bother Perkins, who ended a 15-year struggle with alcoholism in 1967. He wrote, toured and recorded until near the end of his life.

When Perkins made one of his rare Los Angeles appearances at the House of Blues a year ago, Times reviewer Richard Cromelin praised him for “the dignity and poise of a modest man who’s supremely comfortable with himself.”

“Perkins’ survival is a testament to the value of solid craftsmanship and honest expression,” Cromelin wrote, “and one bolt of inspiration: His ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ is one of the sacred texts of rock ‘n’ roll.”

He is survived by his wife, Valda, and four children, Steve, Stan, Greg and Debra.


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