While some ill-informed revisionist writers of rock history would like to dismiss Carl Perkins as a rockabilly artist who became a one-hit wonder at the dawn of rock & roll's early years, a deeper look at his music and career reveals much more. A quick look at his songwriting portfolio shows that he composed "Daddy Sang Bass" for Johnny Cash, "I Was So Wrong" for Patsy Cline, and "Let Me Tell You About Love" for the Judds, big hits and classics all. His influence as the quintessential rockabilly artist has played a big part in the development of every generation of rockers to come down the pike since, from the Beatles' George Harrison to the Stray Cats' Brian Setzer to a myriad of others in the country field as well. His guitar style is the other twin peak -- along with that of Elvis' lead man Scotty Moore -- of rockabilly's instrumental center, so pervasive that modern-day players automatically gravitate toward it when called upon to deliver the style, not even realizing that they're playing Perkins licks, sometimes note for note. As a singer, his interpretation of country ballads is every bit as fine as his better-known rockers. And within the framework of the best of his music is a strong sense of family and roots, all of which trace straight back to his humble beginnings.
He was born to sharecroppers Buck and Louise Perkins (misspelled on his birth certificate as "Perkings") and was soon out in the fields picking cotton and living in a shack with his parents, older brother Jay, and his younger brother Clayton. Working alongside blacks in the field every day, it's not at all surprising that when Carl was gifted with a secondhand guitar, he went to a local sharecropper for lessons, learning firsthand the boogie rhythm that he would later build a career on. By his teens, Carl was playing electric guitar and had recruited his brothers Jay on rhythm guitar and Clayton on string bass to become his first band. The Perkins Brothers Band, featuring both Carl and Jay on lead vocals, quickly established itself as the hottest band in the get-hot-or-go-home cutthroat Jackson, TN, honky tonk circuit. It was here that Carl started composing his first songs with an eye toward the future. Watching the dancefloor at all times for a reaction, Perkins kept reshaping these loosely structured songs until he had a completed composition, which would then be finally put to paper. Perkins was already sending demos to New York record companies, who kept rejecting him, sometimes explaining that this strange new hybrid of country with a black rhythm fit no current commercial trend. But once Perkins heard Elvis on the radio, he not only knew what to call it, but knew that there was a record company person who finally understood it and was also willing to gamble in promoting it. That man was Sam Phillips and the record company was Sun Records, and that's exactly where Perkins headed in 1954 to get an audition.
It was here at his first Sun audition that the structure of the Perkins Brothers Band changed forever. Phillips didn't show the least bit of interest in Jay's Ernest Tubb-styled vocals but flipped over Carl's singing and guitar playing. A scant four months later, he had issued the first Carl Perkins record, "Movie Magg"/"Turn Around," both sides written by the artist. By his second session, he had added W.S. Holland -- a friend of Clayton's -- to the band playing drums, a relatively new innovation to country music at the time. Phillips was still channeling Perkins in a strictly hillbilly vein, feeling that two artists doing the same type of music (in this case, Elvis and rockabilly) would cancel each other out. But after selling Elvis' contract to RCA Victor in December, Perkins was encouraged to finally let his rocking soul come up for air at his next Sun session. And rock he did with a double whammy blast that proved to be his ticket to the bigs.