Blue Suede Blues

We're barely into 1998 and, much like the year that preceded it, death has already tainted its arrival, an unfortunate but inevitable continuance of 1997's massive body count. That year was kicked off by the January 1 death of singer-songwriter and cult icon Townes Van Zandt. By the end of December he had been joined by "Louie Louie" writer and R&B vocalist Richard Berry; early rock and roll diva LaVern Baker; organist Bill Doggett, the man behind the instrumental classic "Honky Tonk"; Faron Young, a disciple of Hank Williams and among the greatest country singers of the Fifties; bluesmen Jimmy Rogers, Jimmy Witherspoon, Luther Allison, Fenton Robinson, and Johnny Copeland; Floyd Cramer, best remembered for the slinky 1960 hit "Last Date"; and famed writer, musician, and producer Robert Palmer.

In the first five weeks of 1998 alone we've lost ace blues harpist Junior Wells, trash-pop guru Sonny Bono, innovative country producer Owen Bradley, blues drummer S.P. Leary (a veteran of groups led by Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters) and, in the same week, rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins and bluesman Junior Kimbrough, the latter a juke-joint careerist whose droningly contemplative guitar style had in recent years garnered acclaim not only in blues circles but also from the hipster elite of the alt-rock underground.

Perkins, of course, is the most recognizable name (well, with the possible exception of Bono) among these recent casualties of old age and/or hard living. Perkins's sole hit, 1956's "Blue Suede Shoes," recorded with Sam Phillips for his Memphis-based Sun Records, was the first single to hit Billboard's pop, country, and R&B charts simultaneously. It remains an archetype of rockabilly and one of rock's most enduring classics. (Think of how many times you've heard it performed by both name acts and cover bands.) But within Perkins's art there is a link to the feral, Delta-drenched blues of Wells and Kimbrough -- namely, the ability and desire to infuse their rural sound with something different and, in the process, broaden the audience for distinctly Southern raunch. It was Perkins who added a blues bop to his west Tennessee honky-tonk. It was Wells who brought his wailing, cotton-field harmonica to the urbanized, Mississippi-steeped blues of Muddy Waters's legendary Chicago group of the late Fifties, providing a blueprint for countless white harp men, from Paul Butterfield and Charlie Musselwhite to Magic Dick and Kim Wilson. (Wells's 1966 album Hoodoo Man Blues, by the way, is both a benchmark of the modern-blues era and the beginning of his long association with guitarist Buddy Guy.)

As for Kimbrough, he never wavered from his original sound, moaning his intensely idiosyncratic blues over one-riff dirges punctuated by his slashing but thoughtful leads. At his Mississippi juke joint, those dirges would last as long as twenty minutes without ever ambling through the muddled improv bloat of something like the Allman Brothers' At Fillmore East. Although he recorded sporadically throughout his career, it was in 1993, when his Sad Days, Lonely Nights was issued, that Kimbrough's audience grew; punk-reared fans hipped to the bluesy scrawl of underground groups such as the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, the Oblivians, and Chrome Cranks began to flock around the unpolished genuine articles produced by Kimbrough and his Fat Possum labelmates R.L. Burnside (also, sadly, not in the best of health) and T-Model Ford (no young man himself at age 76).

The minglings of diverse genres has always informed the best music produced in the South, at least as far back as Jimmie Rodgers's blues-laced prewar country sound, which exerted a huge influence on bluesmen in the Delta (most notably Mississippi John Hurt and Howlin' Wolf). At Sun Records, that mingling became commonplace. Sam Phillips's best artists at the label -- Howlin' Wolf, Junior Parker, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins -- continually blurred the lines that separated blues and country, helping both to modernize the blues and to build the foundation upon which rock and roll was created.

Although Elvis's inaugural single at the label -- the 1954 pairing of "That's All Right" and "Blue Moon of Kentucky" -- was the first genuine genre-buster from Sun, Perkins had already been working on a similar (if as-then-unrecorded) style with the honky-tonk combo he formed in the early Fifties with his brothers Jay and Clayton; drummer W.S. Holland joined later. The Perkins Brothers Band, as they were known, had been playing dances and dives around their west Tennessee home base and had in fact been performing an arrangement of "Blue Moon of Kentucky" not unlike Elvis's. When Carl's wife heard Elvis's version on the radio, she suggested the band head to Memphis for an audition at Sun. Phillips liked the group, but he heard more promise in their raw honky-tonk sound than in the hillbilly bop concoctions they were building around Perkins's darting, aggressive guitar work. Two singles were released in that straight-country vein between October 1954 and the summer of 1955 -- "Movie Magg"/"Turn Around" on Sun's Flip subsidiary and, on Sun proper, "Let That Jukebox Keep On Playing"/"Gone Gone Gone." In that last song you can hear the rudiments of Perkins's singular rockabilly style -- the slippery blues phrasing in his scatting vocal, the chopping guitar runs that skitter atop the driving choog of the rhythm section, and the clickety-clack accompaniment of Clayton's upright bass.

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