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.
Toward the end of 1955, Perkins wrote the song that would send that style over the airwaves of black and white radio stations. After overhearing the plea of a roadhouse dancer for his girlfriend to be mindful of his suede shoes, Perkins scribbled out the lyrics to "Blue Suede Shoes" on a brown paper bag. Within weeks the Perkins Brothers Band recorded it, nailing the song on the second of three takes. Paired with the equally propulsive flip side "Honey Don't," "Blue Suede Shoes" epitomized Perkins's sound and became Sun's first across-the-board national hit. It also ranks as one of rockabilly's quintessential classics, bristling with R&B swagger and honky-tonk bop, a fusion that packs a throttling power more than 40 years after its release.
"Blue Suede Shoes" made a national star of Perkins, but a near-fatal 1956 car crash en route to an appearance on TV's Perry Como Show kept the group from promoting the song. By the time they were ready to hit the road in support of it, Elvis had already taken a cover of the song to the top of the Billboard pop chart. For the next year Perkins struggled for a followup, but none of the six singles Sun issued came close to repeating the success of "Shoes." Disgruntled with Phillips's notoriously low royalty payments and disillusioned with his own inability to land a hit, Perkins followed fellow Sun artist Johnny Cash to Columbia Records in late 1957. Some worthwhile sides were cut during his tenure at the label (notably "Jive After Five" and "Where the Rio de Rosa Flows"), but mostly Perkins attempted to rework garden-variety rock hits (e.g., "Ready Teddy," "Shake Rattle and Roll"), pandered to the teen market (the miserable "Pop, Let Me Have the Car"), or searched his brain for a thematic successor to "Blue Suede Shoes" ("Levi Jacket and a Long Tail Shirt" -- ugh).
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Hampered by a serious drinking problem, Perkins drifted for a while, serving up authentic American rockabilly to obsessed European fans, hooking up with the Beatles (who covered a few Perkins songs on their early albums), playing guitar in Johnny Cash's band, and writing some country hits for others (including Cash's "Daddy Sang Bass"). After Columbia dropped him in 1963, Perkins made some desultory recordings for the Decca and Dollie labels before finally giving up and buying some farmland back in west Tennessee. Pulled out of retirement in the late Sixties thanks to a new deal from Columbia, he recorded a 1970 album with eclectic hippie rockers NRBQ, then looked for the comeback trail on the oldies circuit, recording here and there with marginal success (1978's Ol' Blue Suede Is Back ranks as the best of his innumerable returns) and writing hits here and there for country artists without coming close to having one himself.
By the early Nineties, Perkins -- one of the few surviving artists of the first wave of rock and roll -- had recorded with everyone from Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney to the Judds and Tom Petty. His work, though, was less than remarkable (see his lackluster '89 set Born to Rock or '95's Go Cat Go, a cameo-laden disc released to coincide with his autobiography of the same title). Mostly he contented himself reminding anyone within earshot that he was among rock and roll's founding fathers. No one would argue with him there, but the only person to have successfully built a songwriting career out of self-aggrandizement is Bo Diddley, and even that master of ego has had trouble over the last decade or so in coming up with interesting toasts to his own greatness.
Still, though chart lightning struck Perkins only once, his one-hit status at Sun hardly reflects the quality of his work at the label. In 1990 outtakes and demos from his sixteen sessions at the studio were gathered together, along with all the Sun-issued masters, on the behemoth box set The Classic Carl Perkins. Among the standouts: "Dixie Fried," a backwoods celebration of roadhouse violence and drunken mayhem that features some of Perkins's most lacerating guitar work; "Put Your Cat Clothes On," among the finest of his clothing-obsessed anthems and a hellacious rocker propelled by Jerry Lee Lewis's demonic piano playing; "That's Right," a warning to a straying lover that's more frightening than its sauntering tempo would suggest; "Matchbox," the definitive cover of this Blind Lemon Jefferson blues standard; and "Her Love Rubbed Off," one of rock's weirdest early rockers, equal parts Egyptian slink and hillbilly hullabaloo -- and strange enough for the Cramps to cover, in the early Nineties. None of these songs were hits; all are vibrant testaments to Perkins's greatness at Sun.
These songs put Perkins's career and his place in the pop pantheon into clear focus: Neither a bottomlessly talented rock and roll visionary nor a mere trend-jumping also-ran, Perkins instead served as an architect of the rockabilly sound -- its style, its attitude, its vernacular. But unlike onetime rockabillies such as Elvis, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, and Billy Lee Riley, Perkins was never able to transcend the constraints of the genre he helped create and define. Of course, that doesn't diminish his work. Compared to the limited if occasionally inspired talents of contemporaries such as Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent, Perkins's work at Sun was surprisingly diverse and successful artistically if not commercially, encompassing plangent honky-tonk weepers and slashing, blues-soaked rockers, a few fine shots at the pop market, and some moments of flat-out weirdness. His portraits of Southern life were harrowing and humorous often within the same song, and, for a while at least, when he set out to discuss in song the vibrancy and power of his own music ("Boppin' the Blues," "All Mama's Children"), he turned in work that was definitive, confident, and bristling with the discovery, innovation, and rhythmic excitement that are the hallmarks of every great Sun recording.