In 1953 drummer W.S. 'Fluke' Holland joined.
Carl Perkins first heard Elvis Presley singing 'Blue Moon of Kentucky' on the radio in the late Summer of 1954. Called to listen by his wife Valda as she thought the sound of the band was similar to that of Carl's.
Carl had some of the same musical influences as Elvis, in this case Bill Monroe. Listening to the radio, Carl could hear the sound was close, the band clicked and thumped like Clayton's (Carl's brother and bass player), but the guitar had a full thick sound, whereas Carl played his hard and trebly. The voice was something else, at once familiar and mysterious, but Carl knew where Elvis came from stylistically, because in the sense they were kindred spirits: Bill Monroe. He could hear Monroe in Elvis' upper register, in the infliction of certain lyrics as 'Kentucky' with the emphasis on the second and third syllables (Blue moon of Ken-tucky keep on shinin').
'There's a man in Memphis that understands what we're doing', Carl said as 'Blue Moon of Kentucky' faded out.
'I need to go see him'.
Bill Monroe on meeting Elvis, Scotty and Bill backstage at the Grand Ole Opry complimented them and said he had just cut a new version of his song for Decca following their pattern, due out the next week.
When he later heard 'That's All Right' he thought he found even more common ground in the obvious influences Elvis had picked up from black singers (Carl was taught to play guitar by the black farm hand on his Daddy's farm) and incorporated into his up tempo country style - Rockabilly.
Bethal Springs, Tennessee
Before he got to Memphis Carl had the chance to see Elvis perform at a high school gymnasium in Bethal Springs, Tennessee, about fifteen miles from Jackson.
Carl accompanied by his brothers and band members Jay and Clayton, found only about one hundred people on hand in a place that could hold, by his estimate, nearly three hundred spectators. Carl found it interesting that most of those present were young teens, as opposed to the older crowds he had been playing to. Until that moment it had not occurred to Carl that his style of music might appeal to this younger audience.
Shortly after, Elvis and the band came out to set up. While the bass player and guitar player (Scotty and Bill) were dressed in conservative sports coats and slacks, Elvis was recognizable immediately as the star by his pink shirt, white sports coat, and black pegged-and-pleated slacks. With coat and shirt turned up, and thick, sandy hair slicked back, he looked like no singer Carl had ever seen before, either in person or in photos. His appearance had an electric effect on the audience, particularly the girls, who began screaming when they laid eyes on him. He played them, especially, grinning as he stalked the stage, dark eyes searching out the prettiest one in the crowd and fixing them with a playful but seductive stare. Experience had taught Carl that Elvis' flirtatiousness and panther like pacing masked a bad case of nerves - he knew all the cover-ups too.
The Million Dollar Quartet : Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis & Johnny Cash
Elvis slung his guitar behind his back and danced free, hips swiveling and legs shaking, his entire body convulsing in the grip of a kind of hysteria Carl had seen only in the most rabid churchgoers. When he sang he would sometimes hold the microphone tenderly and caress it, or tilt it forward towards the floor and lean into it as if it were his beloved. All the girls screamed, and the boys egged him on. Carl had seen similar responses to his music, but he never knew if the tumult was more the product of genuine excitement over the sounds or the alcohol taking hold. Here there was no question - it was the music and it was the artist.
For all his apparent confidence, though, between songs Elvis revealed his unease. In his patter he stuttered badly and tripped over himself, figuratively, trying to crack jokes. But in a odd way the stuttering worked to Elvis' advantage. It might have made him even more enduring to the females, but it most certainly was a piece with his signing style, in which he incorporated a stuttering technique that added extra tension to his material.
The last set lasted about half an hour and Carl recalls in addition to 'That's All Right' and 'Blue Moon of Kentucky' Elvis sang 'Cotton Fields' and Hank Snow's 'I'm Movin' On', in which he performed an impersonation of Hank Snow, and got close enough to the real thing to generate the wildest applause of the night apart from that greeting 'That's All Right'. As Elvis was taking his bow and backing away from the mic after his closing song, his feet got tangled in Scotty Moore's guitar cord and he fell square on his backside. With the applause rising, he jumped up and scooted out of sight, heading for the fire escape that would lead him to his car.
Carl and his bothers Jay and Clayton got to meet Elvis that night as Elvis, Scotty and Bill were packing their car. Nothing of much substance was said, Elvis was very polite and 'matter of fact' in his answers. Years later Sam Phillips would describe him as 'probably the most introverted person that ever came into Sun Studio'. Carl noticed that the upturned collar hid a bad case of acne on Elvis' neck.
Sun Records, Memphis Tennessee
In early October 1954, Carl, Jay and Clayton loaded up Carl's '41 Plymouth coupe and headed to Memphis to seek out Sun Records. On arrival Carl found Sam Phillips uninterested but after much pleading was granted an audition. Not unlike Elvis' first official tryout Sam initially found nothing of interest in what Carl and his band played in the small Sun Studio. This time it was not the explosive new 'That's All Right' type of performance that won Sam over but Carl finally playing one of his own songs, written when he was fourteen, and eventually to be titled 'Movie Mag'. 'Now that's original' Phillips called out - the way you play it, the way you sing it, the way you wrote it. Carl had one foot in the door. A career had begun.
A Date With Elvis
By the time Carl had made his debut disc, Elvis Presley had two more singles out and was busy touring the south and southwest, building his audience on the road.
Carl first played on the same show as Elvis when he was booked for two shows in Mariana and West Memphis, Arkansas. As the opening act with a country record to his name, he received a polite reception and no more. Elvis Presley was the attraction. The nervousness Carl thought he had detected at Bethal Springs turned out to be the real thing. He and Elvis had spent a little time at Sun together, and Carl had come to know him as polite, sincere, ambitious and completely devoted to his music career. He envied Elvis' seeming self confidence only to learn it was all an illusion, like his own. Backstage before their shows together, Elvis paced the dressing room, unable to sit still. After his set in Mariana and curious at what appeared to be a breakdown in the making, Carl asked 'Man, why are you so nervous?' - 'They're gonna love you'. 'Oh, God they may not'. Elvis said. When Elvis went on he starred just like when Carl watched him in Bethal Springs.
Watching Elvis helped Carl refine his stage persona. Despite his nervousness, Elvis had a natural instinct for performing, and he had an infallible sense of style, of what looked good on him. Well ahead of his arrival at Sun Elvis had discovered Beale Street and in particular Lansky Brothers.
Sam Phillips suggested to Carl that he seek out Elvis for advice and follow his lead to Beale Street. Elvis was very willing to help out and took Carl down to Lansky's. No more perfect a statement could be found for Elvis Presley than Lansky's clothing - it was colorful, it was outlandish, it was strange, it was original. And none could match Elvis' radar for locating the spot on, drop-dead shirt.
In the middle of the store sat a long, rectangular table piled high with factory-fresh, wildly patterned, boldly synthetic silk shirts.'Man, they had a blue one that would look good on you', Elvis told Carl as they approached the table. Elvis started digging through the shirts, tossing the rejects to the far end of the table. Finally he pulled out a shinny blue shirt, silk looking, if not the real thing. 'Here it is Carl', he said handing the shirt over. Carl tried it on and showed Elvis who approved. 'Man that'd look good with some black pants', he said and back he came with a pair of slacks, which Carl tried on and bought along with the shirt.
After taking care of Carl, Elvis tendered to his own needs, Picking carefully through the entire table of shirts, settling on one that had the most bizarre multicolor design and tried it on. Emerging from the dressing room bold and vibrant, he adjusted the fit in the mirror as one of the Lansky Brothers looked on approvingly. Then Elvis turned up the collar, and Carl saw him transform into the Hillbilly Cat in front of his eyes.
Follow The Leader
Not long after Elvis' success, other rockabilly and country-western singers showed up on the doorstep of Sun Studio, hoping that Sam Phillips could work the same magic with them as he had with Elvis.
Sam Phillips eventually recorded Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Charlie Feathers, Billy Lee Riley and Dickie Lee along with Carl Perkins and other artists.
Blue Suede Shoes
It was Johnny Cash who in 1955 suggested to Carl he write a song called 'Blue Suede Shoes' and how he thought it had a song in it. Carl had noticed shoes of blue suede showing up in stores around Jackson and Memphis, but writing about them seemed silly to Carl who could not relate to them.
Johnny told Carl the story about C.V. White and the blue suede shoes. C.V. White was a black airman from Virginia, Johnny had known while serving in the US Air Force in Germany.
When they got a three day pass they would get out their best uniforms, polish the brass, and spit-shine their shoes. One night C.V. White said something to Johnny that really struck him ...
C.V. would come by and say, 'How do I look, man?' 'Like a million dollars,' Johnny would tell him. One night C.V. followed with 'Well, just don't step on my blue suede shoes!' 'They're not blue suede, C.V. They're air force black, like everyone else's', Johnny replied. 'No, man. Tonight they're blue suede. Don't step on 'em!' said C.V.
Carl, who wrote his songs from his life experiences, said 'Well I've never owned a pair of 'em so I don't know anything about those shoes'.
On October 21, 1955 Carl did a show at Jackson's Union University. Carl and the band began blazing away on some rockabilly and got the room shaking. Carl had finished singing a song and was regrouping for the next number when he heard a harsh-sounding male voice near the front of the stage. The male was angry at his date, who was standing there silent but visibly distraught.
'Uh-uh', the boy said in a stern, forceful voice. 'Don't step on my suedes!' When Carl looked down he could see the boy was indeed wearing blue suede shoes, one of which now had a white scuff mark on the toe. Carl could not understand why a guy would value a pair of shoes over the pretty girl he was dancing with.
When Carl got home he couldn't unwind and laying in bed the images he saw on the dance floor flashed through his head. He recalled Johnny Cash's suggestion that in blue suede shoes lay a story. He began to put the words together.
Carl's first thought was to frame it with a nursery rhyme (Johnny Cash has said that his idea for the song had been to adapt a melody from a nursery rhyme but it does not appear he told Carl this).
'Little Jack Horner sat in a corner ....'
'See a spider going up the wall / To get his ashes hauled'.
'One for the money / Two for the show / Three to get ready / Four to go'.
One for the money, two for the show ... Carl was on his way to writing a classic.
Carl Perkins 1956
A Trip With Elvis
It's been said 'Blue Suede Shows' was written by Carl Perkins during the trip to Amory for a concert with Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. As you can see above this is not true - But the trip did take place ...
In the late fall of '55 Carl, Elvis and Johnny Cash played two more dates together, the first in Amory, Mississippi followed by a show in Helena, Arkansas. (The last Carl would play with Elvis.)
During one stretch of the brief trip from Memphis to Armory, Carl rode with Elvis ('A good driver, especially compared to Johnny Cash, the worst driver in the world'), and they had their longest conversation to date about their personal tastes in music. Both loved 'Old Shep' and sang this together. Then Elvis started talking about his love for the black gospel quartets. Carl asked if he had heard of a group called the Platters, which Elvis had. They discussed their song 'Only You'. In fact Carl had sung the song during a solo date in Armory only a month before, but this was not discussed.
Carl Perkins & Elvis Presley on Stage in Armory
At the time Carl hadn't yet had his big hit, but he'd had 'Movie Mag', he'd played the venue several times before on his own, and they loved him. Carl went on first and someone in the crowd called out 'Only You', Carl. Carl responded by immediately staring the song and tore the place up; the fans went absolutely nuts.
When Carl left the stage he found Elvis sitting in front of a row of lockers, head down, oblivious to everyone around him. Elvis was always the first to congratulate Carl so he knew something was amiss.
Elvis had planned to sing 'Only You' that night but had not told Carl. Elvis nerves were made worse knowing he could not go with the song he had planned and that he felt Carl did so well.
When Elvis went on, midway through the first song a call started building from the crowd, and soon engulfed the entire building: 'We want Carl!' Standing in the wings Carl became unnerved. He felt Elvis was being treated rudely and unfairly. But as Carl tells it, 'It did not take long for Elvis to find his groove' and leave Carl little reason to feel sorry for him. Whatever emotion Elvis was feeling, he channeled it into a performance to rival the best Carl had ever seen from anyone. Over the next hour he watched awestruck as Elvis 'just poured it on. Sweat popped out on him and was drippin' to the floor and he had that hair flyin' and them legs movin'. He dug deep. He pulled it off - he rocked! They wasn't hollerin' 'Perkins' at the end. They only did that for a little bit after he first came out. That really embarrassed me'.
After a night off, the Perkins and Presley troupes reassembled in Helena, Arkansas, for a double bill. Carl didn't sing 'Only You' that night but again performed well. Elvis came out to an instant repeat of the Armory show, and again had to jack up his own performance a few notches to quell the audience's chant for Carl.
But he succeeded.
This is completely different to Johnny Cash's latter description:
'When Elvis went on, he got a fabulous reception too, but he wasn't all the way through his song when half the audience started shouting for Carl. It was so bad that he only did one more song before giving up. He left the stage and Carl came back on to thunderous applause'.
Carl's version seems the more believable. Elvis was not a quitter. Why the difference? When all four of the Beatles cannot agree on how the group came to be called 'The Beatles' it should not be surprising that after so many years memory's fail and people remember things differently. Carl gracelessly acknowledges Elvis was the King. As you will read below, Carl contradicts Johnny again - making it clear that Johnny Cash was not present for the recording of the Million Dollar Quartet Session.
Elvis Signs With RCA
On November 21, 1955, Elvis signed his first contract with RCA Records.Carl Perkins Records Blue Suede Shoes
On December 19, 1955 Carl Perkins recorded 'Blue Suede Shoes' at Sun records.
Blue Suede Shoes Released by Sun
On January 1, 1956 Sun Records released 'Blue Suede Shoes' as a single backed with another classic 'Honey Don't' (One of three Carl Perkins songs latter recorded by The Beatles.)
Elvis Records Blue Suede Shoes
On January 30 Elvis records 'Blue Suede Shoes' first up in his second recording session in New York.
By early March 'Blue Suede Shoes' was starting to catch on nationally.
It entered Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart on march 3 as did Presley's first RCA single 'Heartbreak Hotel', and a week later Carl became the first country artist to appear on the national R&B chart. On local and regional pop charts throughout the country 'Blue Suede Shoes' and 'Heartbreak Hotel' were swapping the number one spot; Carl was, as he said, 'standing toe to toe with that pretty Elvis'. (No disrespect was intended, only that Carl wished he had the looks Elvis had). Cover versions of 'Blue Suede Shoes' began appearing from artists as disparate as Pee Wee King and Lawrence Welk.
Carl Perkins' original version of 'Blue Suede Shoes' became rock 'n' roll's first across-the-board chart hit, simultaneously reaching #2 on the pop and R&B charts and topped the country chart.
Elvis Presley had spent his first couple of months at RCA in sessions for his debut album, and among the tracks he cut was 'Blue Suede Shoes'. Seeing Carl's version take off as it did, Presley's producer, Steve Sholes had placed a panic call to Sam Phillips, wondering if the label had signed the wrong artist - Perkins after all, was a writer as well as a singer and instrumentalist. (Odd considering 'Heartbreak Hotel' was also doing well) Phillips counseled patience with Presley, and assured Sholes that he would, in time see satisfying results.
Steve Sholes had agreed not to release Elvis' version of 'Blue Suede Shoes' as a single while Carl's was still hot, and indeed, it was released initially on a four-song EP (Extended play) in March and later that month, on his self-titled debut album, Elvis Presley.
Scotty Moore discounts other published reports in recalling how Elvis' decision to cut Carl's song was made for personal reasons (And Carl and Scotty were good friends all through the years) stemming from his friendship born at Sun and on the road: 'It's been claimed that RCA and Colonel Parker were trying to get Elvis to do the song, but he did it more as a tribute thing than anything else. He had been talking to the band about it, and then he just decided he wanted to do it. (Elvis recorded songs on instinct)
On March 17, Elvis introduced 'Blue Suede Shoes' to a national television audience when he performed it, along with 'Heartbreak Hotel' on the Dorsey Brothers Stage Show in New York. In deference to their friendship, Presley waited until Perkins' version had peaked to release his own, which reached #20.
In Norfolk, on March 21, Carl Perkins understood better than anyone around him that the past eighteen years of his life were leading him to New York City, where one month prior the spark of Elvis' career had exploded into a supernova. On the outside Carl stood tall and proud, a stone rockabilly forging his own trail against all the odds; inside he carried the burden of his history, from the abject povety of Lake County to the long march through playing live in rough clubs to the echoing plaint of Elvis' voice summoning him to his destiny in Memphis.
Departing Norfolk after another well-received show, Carl, Jay, Clayton and W.S. engaged in easy banter about their prospects for stardom in New York. They were on their way.
Tragedy Strikes Carl Perkins
However, shortly before sunup on March 22, fate intervened unkindly to halt the momentum that had been building with 'Blue Suede Shoes'. While en route to New York to appear on The Perry Como Show, Carl Perkins was seriously injured when their driver fell asleep at the wheel, causing the car to hit the back of a truck before plunging into water. The truck driver was killed, and Carl and his brother Jay were seriously injured. Although Perkins was back on the road in about a month, Jay who suffered a fractured neck; never fully recovered and was later diagnosed with a brain tumor, from which he died in 1958.
While in hospital Carl was visited by Scotty Moore, Bill Black and D.J. Fontana. They had a message from Elvis, Bill Black told Carl, 'Hey, man, Elvis sends his love'. The trio were on their way to New York to back Elvis on the Dorsey Brothers Stage Show the next night. Elvis had flown ahead and was already in Manhattan.
On the evening of March 24 Carl watched Elvis performing 'Heartbreak Hotel' and 'Money Honey' on his sixth and final appearance on the The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show.
Nearly a week after the wreck, the get-well cards and letters of sympathy were piling up. Pointing to a yellow envelope marked 'Western Union', a nurse told Carl it had arrived earlier in the week but had been misplaced. Dated March 23, it read:
We were all shocked and very sorry to hear of the accident. I know what it is for I had a few bad ones myself. If I can help you in any way please call me. I will be at the Warwick Hotel in New York City. Our wishes are for a speedy recovery for you and the other boys. Sincerely Alvis Presley, Bill Black, Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana.
Telegram To Carl Perkins from Elvis Presley (Alvis Presley, Bill Black, Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana)
No matter that the name had been misspelled, the greeting from Elvis Presley boosted Carl's spirits immeasurably Even as their paths diverged with Carl out of commission, his friendship with Elvis remained true and strong, in and of itself a source of strength.
During his recuperation, Carl was visited by agents headed by Jim Denny, wanting to sign him but he decided to stay loyal to Sam Phillips and Sun Records. Jim Denny was a long-time manager of the Grand Ole Opry Artists Service who went on to become one of the most successful talent agents and song publishers in country music history. His skill as a promoter and developer of talent played a vital role in the growth of country music in the 1950s and early 1960s.
It was Jim Denny who gave Elvis (With Scotty & Bill) his opportunity to perform on the Grand Ole Opry after Sam Phillips convinced him to 'just give the boy a chance'.
Blue Suede Shoes Sells a Million
On April 10, Sam Phillips presented Carl with a new Cadillac as reward for being the first Sun artist to sell a million copies, in this case it was 'Blue Suede Shoes'.
Sam Phillips presents Carl Perkins with a new Cadillac
Perkins quickly resumed work at Sun, recording a brace of classic rockabilly sides - including 'Boppin' the Blues' and 'Matchbox' (Another The Beatles would record) - throughout 1956. However, for almost unexplainable reasons, he would never again crack the Top Forty.
Carl Perkins performs at Overton Park Shell on the night of June 1, 1956.
Some 5,000 teenagers turned out that night for two hours of rock and roll by various artists including Perkins.
Carl Perkins signs autographs at Overton Park Shell on the night of June 1, 1956.
Some 5,000 teenagers turned out that night for two hours of rock and roll by various artists including Perkins.
Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley swap autographs at Overton Park Shell on the night of June 1, 1956.
Elvis Presley made a surprise appearance at the show.
Sam Phillips Cheats Carl
In August '56, Carl received his first royalty checks from Sam Phillips. Two envelopes were received, one bearing the Sun Records logo, the other a different-colored envelope from Sam's publishing company, Hi-Lo Music. The Sun check (Artist royalties) was for an amount slightly exceeding $12,000; the Hi-Lo check (Writers royalties) for a little more than $14,000. The money was below what Carl had been expecting.
Carl was expecting about double that at least.
Other artists had already told him he would probably make $100,000 from his first royalty payment given how mammoth a record the song had been out of the box. (Plus writers royalties from Elvis' and others covers of the song.) The accounting Sam Phillips gave with the payment 'was not to where you could really count it up for yourself, it was just so vague' Carl's wife Valda recalled. But one item caught their attention: Sam had deducted the price of the Cadillac from Carl's artist earnings.
But Carl was just thankful to have that kind of money (Still a large sum in the '50s). Carl did not pursue the matter. 'I did not feel right to question Sam about too much of anything really. I trusted him'.
Carl opened the first bank account of his life and deposited the checks. Carl made a $10,000 down payment on a house - his own home, not a government-subsidized apartment. Carl gave Jay and Clayton $5,000 each and WS Holland $2,000. At about the same time Sam Phillips bought a house.
It was Jim Denny who opened Carl's eyes to the truth. Some years later after Carl had left Sun and was being managed by Jim Denny, Jim commented to Carl that the BMI check for 'Blue Suede Shoes' must have amounted to 'a fortune'. To which Carl replied: 'What's BMI?' After explaining BMI's (Broadcast Music International) function as a licensing agency that registers songwriters' material and collects fees due them and their publishing companies for use of the material, Denny pointed out, 'You get paid half of what your publisher gets - 'Blue Suede Shoes' is probably one of the most played records that's been out in years.
What did you get off that in '56?' Carl related the figure on his first Hi-Lo check. Denny's comment: 'You've got to be kidding'. When Denny checked with BMI, Carl alleges, he found more than $60,000 having been paid to Sam Phillips in 1956. Less than $15,000 - less than half of the fifty-fifty split with Sam's publishing company - had made it's way into Carl's pocket that year alone.
To Carl's dismay, he found Sam beyond reach, owing to the expiration of BMI's three-year statute of limitations provision for protesting royalty payments. Though Jim Denny Carl saw his first thorough accounting, with listings of all his songs, where they were being played, and how much he had earned off each one.
In the mid 1970's Carl sued Sam, due to the complicated issue of the statute of limitations the case was difficult to win. The court ruled that Carl's attorneys had failed to prove fraud on Sam's part however, Carl was awarded $36,182.46 being only for royalties due from January 5, 1969 to June 30, 1977.
Unfortunately Carl had cashed a check in 1967 for $12,000 that had written in small type in the lower left corner 'Accepted in payment as full royalties due through December 31, 1967'. Carl says he did see it and was suspicious of it, so consulted an attorney, who advised him erroneously as it turned out, to bank the check as it would not have any bearing on any future lawsuit Carl might want to file.
Carl did have a big win following the courts ruling, when his attorney threatened yet another lawsuit against Sam. A deal was negotiated and Carl was given full control of the copyrights on all of his Sun songs.
Never again did he have to beg for what was owed him.
Carl was able to buy his dream home, a modest, rambling, one-story home.
In time Carl would acknowledge, with genuine appreciation, Sam's contribution to his music and would even tell reporters that the biggest mistake he had made in his career was leaving Sun Records - but he never forgave Sam for taking money he considered to be his, that he needed to support his family.
The Million Dollar Quartet
On December 4, 1956, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley (who'd already moved from Sun to RCA) held an impromptu jam session at Sun Studio. (Johnny Cash stuck around only long enough to be photographed with the others.) The foursome were dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet.
Carl recalls Elvis walked into the Sun Studio shortly after his recoding of 'Matchbox' was complete (Featuring the unknown Jerry Lee Lewis on piano.) Elvis was accompanied by a dancer from Las Vegas who Elvis later referred to as his 'House Guest'. Her name has been widely published as Marilyn Evans, but Carl remembers her surname being Miller, prompting him to ask if she were related to the dancer Ann Miller, to whom she bore a physical resemblance. 'Were sort of in the same business, but I'm not kin to her and I'm not near the dancer she is', Carl recalls her saying, 'She's a wonderful dancer'.
Seeing Elvis for the first time since he left Sun, Carl found the change in his friend's appearance startling. Elvis' hair, sandy colored in 1954, was jet-black, a deeper shade than the black he had sported in his latter days at Sun; his skin was smooth as china, and the acne on his neck cleared up - he wasn't even wearing a collar now. Dressed casually in black slacks, a white shirt, and a light colored jacket, Elvis cut a striking figure - the hillbilly Cat had ascended to the media-anointed title of King of Rock 'n' Roll.
Making a beeline for the piano, Elvis sat down. 'So your Elvis Presley, huh?' Jerry Lee said, strolling over casually. 'I ain't nobody but', Elvis answered, smiling.
'Well, I'm Jerry Lee Lewis. I'm playing piano with Carl today. I play on everybody's records down here at Sun. Man, I didn't know you could play'.
'Aw, I can't', Elvis said sheepishly as he noodled a melody.
'Well then, why don't you let me sit down?'
Elvis looked up at Jerry Lee and laughed softly. 'Well, I'd like to try' he said, as he continued playing.
Sam came out and said he'd like Elvis to hear what Carl had just recorded earlier in the day. Elvis listened to 'Matchbox' and declared it a 'killer' track. Elvis returned to the piano.
As he and Carl harmonized on a gospel song Sam told engineer Jack Clement to start a tape rolling - 'We may never have these people together again'. Johnny Cash was there briefly and did some singing before the tape started rolling but had to leave to go pick up his wife Vivian when she left work.
The Million Dollar Quartet : Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis & Johnny Cash
There is also a very detailed account in Peter Guralnick's book, Last Train To Memphis - The Rise of Elvis Presley, that suggests that Johnny only stayed for a short time and then left, possibly to do some Christmas shopping. Colin Escott also reports that Cash was only brought in late in the session, after Sam Phillips had decided to call the Memphis Press Scimitar. The fact that Cash may not have been present throughout the session seems to be confirmed by two pieces of 'chatter' caught on the tapes.
In the first, another Sun artist, Smokey Joe Baugh, came by and his gravelly voice can be heard after 'I Shall No Be Moved', saying 'You oughta get up a quartet'. In the second, a female voice, probably Marilyn Evans, can be heard asking if 'This Rover Boys Trio can sing 'Farther Along'?'
Sometime in March '57, Elvis droped by Sun Records as Sam Phillips is playing back Carl Perkins recording 'That's Right'. According to Carl, Elvis danced across the floor to the beat and declared that it would be a hit. 'Man I'd kill for that song', Elvis said. Sam boxed the tape and the three of them headed for WHBQ.
When the trio walked in to the studio Dewey Phillips broke into the record he was playing and announced: 'Somebody lock the door! Don't let 'em out! Got 'em both down here, burnin' them jukeboxes up with songs like -' and he had 'Hound Dog' cued up and ready to rip. As it played, Sam handed the tape to Dewey and said, 'I think this is one of the best records that will ever come out of Sun'. Dewey got Elvis to the mike to introduce the song, 'Well, ladies and gentlemen, if this ain't gonna be a hit record I'm gonna be fooled. I-I-I-I-it's really got a different beat and all I know is the name of it's 'That's Right'. And Dewey played the song. After the first airplay Dewey interviewed Carl and Elvis on the air, and devoted a good portion of his show to their music, coming back frequently to ask them questions.
When they left the station, Elvis, Carl and Sam found the street mobbed with teenagers who had been listening to Dewey's show. They ran for the car and drove back to Sun, where more cars and teenagers were lined up. 'Boys, I gotta go', Elvis said declining Sam's invitation to come in. Carl and Sam made their way through the crowd as Elvis sped off into the night, a line of hot rods following behind him.
[There was no way that a song like 'That's Right' was ever going to be a hit with the subject matter of honky tonk life but obviously Elvis liked whet he heard.]
1958 - Columbia Records
Perkins and Cash moved to Columbia Records in 1958. Unlike Cash Perkins did not have the hoped for success.
On October 19, 1958 Jay Perkins died from a malignant brain tumor (Cancer). Placed alongside the many wreaths and sprays at Jay's grave site on the day of his funeral was a lone weeping willow tree, with a dozen paper mache redbirds affixed to it's limbs. The attached sympathy card was signed, 'With love, Elvis'.
Less than a year after Jay's death WS (Fluke) Holland left the band to manage Sun artist Carl Mann ('Mona Lisa'). Eventually Holland went to work for Johnny Cash for the longterm.
Shortly after Holland's departure Carl visited Jim Denny at Cedarwood Publishing and found Denny eager to sign him as a writer. Jim Denny turned out to be precisely the right person for Carl at a time when he most needed guidance professionally. Although he never again repeated the success he had at Sun, Carl did have success as a songwriter over the years with Patsy Cline 'So Wrong', Johnny Cash 'Daddy Sang Bass' and The Judds, 'Let Me Tell You About Love', recording his songs.
In 1963, Carl suffered the loss of another friend in Patsy Cline. Patsy's plane crashed due to bad weather on March 3, 1963. Also on board were her manager and pilot Randy Hughes, Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins. On hearing the news Carl drove to the crash site, aloud access due to his having state number plates courtesy of his friendship with the Tennessee Governor.
Jim Denny died on August 27, 1963. This was a big loss as in Jim, Carl had found a manager and friend that he could trust. In 1963, Carl was forced to fire his brother Clayton due to his violent temperament.
1964 - Britain and The Beatles
In early 1964, while touring Britain with Chuck Berry, he learned to his great surprise that he'd been a major influence on The Beatles, especially guitarist George Harrison. Under Carl's supervision, the Beatles cut three of his songs - more songs than they recorded by any other outside source - 'Matchbox', 'Honey Don't' and 'Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby'. Of these none come close to the Perkins originals, except maybe, 'Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby' with vocals by George Harrison. Carl was becoming something of a legend in Europe (as were many early rockers), he returned to England for a second tour in October 1964.
1967 - Johnny Cash
Carl Perkins' career got another boost when fellow Sun Records alumnus Johnny Cash tapped him to tour and record as part of his band in the mid-Sixties and featured him as a regular in his Seventies variety show. Perkins remained part of Cash's touring entourage from 1967 to 1975 - a mutual show of loyalty from two Sun-era comrades who'd came up much the same way.
On Christmas Day in 1973, Clayton Perkins died from a self inflicted gun shot.
He had been unemployed for almost a decade after Carl was forced to fire him. Again Elvis sent s a weeping willow tree, with thirteen paper mache redbirds affixed to it's limbs.
In January 1975 the Perkins family was shattered further with the death of Carl's father, Buck.
In the midst of all the all the flowers that covered his grave the day of the funeral was a large weeping willow tree, with thirteen paper mache redbirds affixed to it's limbs.
The attached sympathy card was signed, 'From Elvis, with love'.
The song EP Express was made up almost entirely of Elvis Presley song titles ('Well I put my hound dog on your trail / I found it out at heartbreak hotel / But that's alright now, Mama, any way you do'.) An inspired performance that made the country chart.
As already detailed earlier in this article, In the mid 1970's Carl sued Sam Phillips over royalties. Carl did have a big win following the courts ruling, when his attorney threatened yet another lawsuit against Sam. A deal was negotiated and Carl was given full control of the copyrights on all of his Sun songs.
Never again did he have to beg for what was owed him.
August 16, 1977
On August 16, 1977 Carl learned of Elvis' death via his son Greg.
Carl's reaction was one of disbelief, turning on the TV for conformation which was immediate.
Carl tells the story that about six months earlier he had traveled to Graceland to see Elvis, he was aware he was not in good health after seeing him live in concert some months before that. He wanted to help his friend. At the gates of Graceland he was greeted by Vester Presley, who called the house to announce Carl, but reported back that Elvis was still asleep. At seven o'clock in the evening. After signing autographs for fans waiting on the street for a glimpse of Elvis, Carl drove back to Jackson.
Carl Perkins : 'I guess we all thought that maybe somehow Elvis would never die.
But when it hit me, man, there'd be no more Elvis, I toted the guilt around that I didn't get to him. I couldn't describe it then and, really, I still can't and give that feeling justice, the emotional drop that took place inside my soul when Greg walked into my house and told me Elvis was dead'.
By the 80s Carl Perkins' reputation as one of rock's pioneers had grown. He recorded an album with Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, The Survivors and another similar project, with Cash, Lewis and Roy Orbison, Class Of '55, followed in 1986. Carl spent much of the '80s touring and working with younger musicians who were influenced by him, among them Paul McCartney and the Stray Cats. In 1985 he starred in a television special to mark the 30th anniversary of 'Blue Suede Shoes'. It co-starred George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Dave Edmunds, two members of the Stray Cats, Rosanne Cash and Eric Clapton. In 1987 Carl was elected to the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. He signed to the Universal label in 1989 and released Born To Rock.
His autobiography, Go, Cat, Go!, was published in 1995, from which most of the above is derived. A straight forward honest account, easy to read.
Carl's mother Mary died in 1991, aged seventy-nine. Carl was unwell for much of the 90s and suffered from a heart condition that took its toll on January 19, 1998. Carl died aged 66, at Jackson-Madison County General Hospital from complications related to a recent series of strokes. Carl was born on April 9, 1932.
Click the link below to watch a video of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins & Johnny Cash backstage in 1955 + Carl performing 'Blue Suede Shoes' in '56.
Buy the Million Dollar Quartet CD
Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins & Johnny Cash 1955
Carl Perkins performing 'Blue Suede Shoes' Live in 1956
Elvis Scotty & Bill at Sun
Sam Phillips: Sun Records - The Man Who Invented Rock & Roll
Marilyn Evans and the Million Dollar Quartet
Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash
Elvis Presley's Sun Recordings