Close to half a century after he wrote the early rock classic "Blue Suede Shoes" the name Carl Perkins is hardly as world famous as that of Elvis (who made the song a hit) or other early rock pioneers. Yet his success as a songwriter has spanned generations, from hits for Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline to The Judds, and his influence as the quintessential rockabilly artist has inspired everyone from George Harrison to Brian Setzer.
Born in Tiptonville, Tennessee, he was taught to play the guitar by a neighbor with whom he picked cotton. He began playing at the age of seven on a guitar made from a cigar box, a broomstick, and baling wire. Perkins was heavily influenced by country music and rhythm and blues and was one of the first musicians to play lead guitar and sing simultaneously.
His parents were sharecroppers during the Depression, but poverty didn't prevent him from listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio, and he also listened to the blues being sung by a black sharecropper named John Westbrook across the field from where he worked. After World War II the Perkins family relocated to Bemis, Tennessee, where he and his brothers picked cotton. In 1953 Perkins, brothers Jay (rhythm guitar) and Clayton (upright bass), and drummer W.S. "Fluke" Holland formed a band that worked up a repertoire of hillbilly songs performing at local honky tonks.
Perkins decided in 1954 to pursue a musical career, and that October the Perkins brothers travelled to Memphis to audition for Sam Phillips at Sun Records. In February 1955 Phillips issued two songs from that first Perkins session, on his new Flip label, to minimal response. That November, after Phillips sold Presley's Sun contract to RCA Records, Phillips decided to push the next Perkins single, an original called "Blue Suede Shoes". "Blue Suede Shoes" entered the US Billboard chart on 3 March 1956 (the same day Presley's first single entered the chart). Initiallly inspired by a remark Perkins overheard at a teen dance, his version of the song quickly became a huge hit and was also the first country record to appear on both the R&B chart and the pop chart.
Perkins continued to record for Sun until mid-1958, but the label's newcomers, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, occupied most of Phillips' attention. While still at Sun, Perkins recorded "Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby" and "Matchbox", both of which were also covered by the Beatles. In January 1958, Perkins signed with Columbia Records, where Cash would soon follow. Although some of the songs he recorded for that label were very good, only two, "Pink Pedal Pushers" and "Pointed Toe Shoes" hit the charts.
Ten years later, after joining Cash's band as a guitarist, Perkins was back at Columbia, this time recording an album together with new rock revival group NRBQ. Perkins left Cash in 1976 and went on the road with a band consisting of Perkins' two sons, with whom he was still performing in the 90s.
Perkins 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 1987 Perkins was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He signed to the Universal label in 1989 and released Born To Rock. His early work has been anthologized many times in several countries.
He was unwell for much of the 90s and died of a heart attack in January 1998.