Carl Perkins was a contemporary of Elvis Presley that contributed just as much to the genre of rock and roll as the King himself. However, Carl doesn’t get quite as much credit. Known for writing the early rock anthem “Blue Suede Shoes, Carl’s career sadly didn’t have the longevity of Elvis’. Part of the reason why was a car crash that the musician suffered just as he was striking it big. Join Facts Verse as we explore how Carl Perkins’ career never recovered after his car crash.
Carl Perkins Was Like the Other Elvis
Carl Perkins was born on April 9, 1932, in Lake City, Tennessee. The young boy grew up in a relatively low-income household, and he and his brothers learned to pass the time by playing music. Similar to Elvis Presley, Carl grew up in a time and place that allowed him to experience the blues music that African-American artists were making. Also like Elvis, Carl incorporated this experience into his own playing. However, Carl also had his foot far more firmly in the country tradition than Elvis did. Another thing that set the two apart was the fact that Carl was a guitar player in addition to being a singer, while Elvis was known for just his voice.
Forming a band alongside his brothers Clayton and Jay, Carl Perkins began building up experience playing in honky-tonks around the area that he grew up in. Once the future star had built up enough confidence in himself as a performer, he felt ready to approach the head of the Memphis-based record label Sun Records. As some may know, Sun Records was the label that gave Elvis his start, and Elvis actually signed with the record label first. The head of Sun Records was a man by the name of Sam Phillips. When Carl played Sam his music, the label head thought that his sound was too similar to Elvis’. However, he couldn’t deny his talent.
Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley had a similar sound, but the two never met until after already establishing their identities. The two just so happened to have very similar influences, as well as to have grown up in very similar situations. Sun Records head Sam Phillips felt that the sound Carl Perkins came to him with was too similar to Elvis’, but he also felt that the musician was too talented not to sign. Because of this, Carl signed a contract with the record label under the pretense that he was going to make more country-oriented music than the kind of rockabilly stuff that he and his brothers had already started performing around the area.
Carl Signed to Sun Records and Made Country Music
Even if he preferred making rockabilly music to country, Carl Perkins still gave his early work with Sun Records his all. The musician found success thanks to a couple of country singles, and he was later able to expand into the kind of rockabilly music that he had always wanted to make. The big hit that allowed Carl to start making rockabilly music instead of country was “Blue Suede Shoes”. Ironically, Carl was inspired to write the song at the behest of country-music legend Johnny Cash, who was also signed to Sun Records at the time. John dared Carl to write a song about the latest fashion trend, and that just so happened to be blue suede shoes! Carl wrote the song on a whim just for the joke, but ended up liking it so much that he presented it to Sun Records head Sam Phillips. “Blue Suede Shoes” was a rockabilly song through and through. Though Sam had initially been skeptical of the idea of Carl releasing rockabilly music, he allowed him to release the song. Amazingly, it became a hit! Still, it was a bigger hit when Elvis sang it.
Besides the power of the song itself, another reason why Sam Phillips finally allowed Carl Perkins to start dabbling in rockabilly once again with the release of “Blue Suede Shoes” was that Elvis Presley was no longer in his stable. In November of 1955, Elvis made the transition from Sun Records to RCA. Elvis had outgrown the relatively small record label that he had started out on and was ready for bigger and better things. Sam didn’t hold a grudge against Elvis for moving on, but he needed a new rockabilly artist to take his place on the label’s roster. Thankfully, he already had one in tow! However, a tragic car crash was soon going to complicate matters.
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“Blue Suede Shoes” Was a Rockabilly Hit!
The 1956 release of “Blue Suede Shoes” made Carl Perkins an overnight rockabilly sensation. Elvis Presley notably covered the song, as we’ve already briefly touched upon. Today, Elvis’ version of the song is the first one that generally pops up, and there are relatively few people who even know who Carl Perkins is! However, in the 1950s, people knew that Carl was one of the realest figures on the rockabilly scene. The success of “Blue Suede Shoes” arguably could’ve led to a much bigger career for the artist than it did. However, fate had different plans for him.
Just as “Blue Suede Shoes” was climbing up the charts, Carl Perkins and his brother Jay got into a serious car crash. At the time, Carl’s brothers were still his bandmates. However, Jay wouldn’t continue performing with him for long. The car crash killed the man that was driving the car, and it seriously injured both Carl and his brother. At the time, Carl was travelling to New York City to make an appearance on The Perry Como Show. As one might imagine, the accident brought about a change of plans. Carl and his brother were rushed to the hospital, where they were treated in the emergency wing. Both musicians survived, but only one of them would fully recovered from the sustained injuries.
Carl Perkins did his best to get back to his life as if nothing had happened. The musician recovered, and he returned to playing relatively quickly. However, the same can’t be said for Jay. Jay never fully recovered, and he ended up dying from complications related to his injuries in 1958. Upon his brother’s passing, Carl was devastated. Though Carl had fully healed from his 1956 car crash in a physical capacity, he would never be healed from the wounds of losing his brother. The loss caused Carl to turn to the bottle for solace, as many other musicians have done both before and since.
The Car Crash Put a Halt to Carl’s Career Plans
The release of “Blue Suede Shoes” made it seem like Carl Perkins was going to be the next big thing. However, the release of this breakout single ended up being the peak of the musician’s career. The 1956 car crash didn’t put an immediate end to the rock-and-roll star’s upward trajectory, but the snowballing effects of it did eventually cause Carl to lose his career momentum. The same year that Carl’s brother died, the musician also made the jump from Sun Records to Capitol Records. Unlike Elvis Presley, Carl’s jump to a bigger label didn’t yield increased returns.
As the 1960s came around, it began to seem as if Carl Perkins was going to be relegated to being a moderately successful country musician on the Nashville scene. The musician had decided to return to his country roots after the success of “Blue Suede Shoes” failed to find him a sustainable career in rockabilly. Rockabilly was on it’s way out, though country music was a guaranteed sale in Nashville. Carl also formed a friendship with the Beatles during the 1960s, as the four musicians were big fans of his work. The Beatles covered many of Carl’s songs during their early days. Carl and Paul McCartney even maintained a friendship that lasted decades, with Carl appearing on Paul’s 1981 album Tug of War. Given Carl’s rockabilly prestige, it’s no wonder that the rambunctious young Beatles looked up to him. In 1965, Carl began touring with Johnny Cash.
As we’ve already discussed, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash had a friendship that dated back to their time at Sun Records. Johnny offered Carl the chance to tour alongside him in the late-1960s, and the two continued touring together until the mid-1970s. In the late 1970s, Carl formed a band with his sons, and he even formed his own record label. However, he only found niche success in his career from this point forward. In the 1980s, Carl Perkins founded the Carl Perkins Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse.
Carl Perkins’ Later Life
In the late 1980s, Carl Perkins was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. However, the star’s light was slowly fading. In the early 1990s, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Amazingly, the cancer abated within a year thanks to treatment. However, it wouldn’t be the last of the musician’s health scares. In 1997, Carl was forced to undergo surgery due to a blockage in his heart. The surgery seemed to be a success, but Carl suffered from a couple of strokes during the recovery period. Because of this, he passed away.
At the time of his passing, Carl Perkins was 65 years old. Today, the musician is rarely given the respect he deserves in regards to his influence on the genre of rock and roll. In 1956, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash all got together at Sun Records for an impromptu jam session. The session became legendary, and numerous recordings from it have been released. At the time, Carl was seen as being on equal footing with the other three. However, things are different today, and the reason why all stems back to the car crash that occurred that year.
Carl Perkins arguably could’ve become as big of a star as Elvis Presley if it weren’t for the car crash that claimed his brother’s life. Now it’s time to hear from you: did you know that Carl Perkins wrote “Blue Suede Shoes” after being dared to by Johnny Cash, and that the musician founded a center to prevent child abuse? Comment down below!