Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Carl Perkins on Elvis, Rockabilly, and the Haunting Sound of 706 Union Avenue

In Memphis, everyone has an Elvis ghost story. If Mystery Train, the Jim Jarmusch film, is to be believed, he appears most often on the outskirts of town, hitching a ride to Graceland. The boy Presley is never far from the action in the movie; providing a nickname for Joe Strummer, making a friendly visitation to a lonely hotel room, and prompting a bone of contention between two Japanese tourists.
Having made a pilgrimage to Memphis, the young couple must establish the identity of the king of rock’n’roll before their sightseeing itinerary can be finalised. “Elvis,” says one. “Carl Perkins,” says the other.
Fifty-seven years old, and still wearing blue suede shoes, Carl Perkins himself has an eerie story to tell. It happened in 1986 when, along with Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison, he visited the partially-restored Sun recording studio at 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee.
An 18-wheel mobile recording truck stood outside the tiny studio, while inside, the four rock’n’roll greats recreated the Million Dollar Quartet of some three decades before, with Orbison filling the slot vacated by Elvis Presley in that most celebrated of jam sessions.
Even today, the memory makes Carl Perkins shudder. “I don’t know much about ghosts,” he notes cautiously. “I can’t say I do or don’t believe in them. I believe in spirits. I know that I have felt my brother Jay, who was killed in 1956. And I do feel my dad around me sometimes, I have my own little private talks with him when I’m out alone fishin’.
“But there was a feel that Presley was there. We talked about it. The piano that we all used was sittin’ there, 30 years later. I said: ‘Right here is where I was standing scared to death when I was singing my first song.’ And John said, ‘Well, he had the mike right close up to that corner when I walked in.’ And Jerry Lee, he came out with comments like, ‘Hell, I don’t know where I was at. I was drunk then, and I still am!’
“There was a song on that album called We Remember The King, and when we finished singing that song [producer] Chips Moman called us out to the truck. We listened, four old rockers standing there with our heads down. Nothing was said, not one word, till that song was finished and it was silent. I seized the moment. I said, ‘Guys, I want you to know, and I’m not ashamed to tell you, I love you.’ We all hugged each other, and it was a very touching time.’”
The thought of Elvis has not always generated such benevolence in Carl Perkins. In March, 1956, en route to the Perry Como Show to promote his song Blue Suede Shoes, Perkins’ eight-seater Chrysler Imperial smashed into a pick-up truck, fracturing Carl’s skull and leaving his brother Tony in intensive care.
“I was 85 miles away from being the first rockabilly ever to be on national television,” he recalls, with little trace of bitterness. Instead, from his hospital bed, Perkins heard increasingly heated reports of how Elvis was making the song his own. “I had a lot of questions to ask the good Lord, and I did. I was laying in a cast; being flat on your back, you’re forced to look up. During my long days and nights of laying there I wondered and questioned: ‘Why did this happen to me when I was so close?’”
Today, Perkins is philosophical about it all. “I could never have been in Elvis’s class. The accident and those alcohol bouts … I don’t know how much stardom it might have took away from me, but it wouldn’t have hurt Elvis at all had I not had them. He just had that magic of being the total entertainer. He had the most unique look. He was a handsome dude. He had moves that they will try to copy for the rest of eternity. I see a lot of Elvis moves in people like Michael Jackson, but Elvis – those hipshakin’. Kneeknockin’ moves he made – he didn’t go to school to learn how to do that, that was how he felt about his music. His soul made him  move like that.
“There has never been another star like Presley. I haven’t known anyone come close to him, even the Beatles, the Stones, Tom Jones. Elvis never came down off that ladder. When he went to number one, he stayed there.”
For Perkins, the road to these truths was long and winding. At first, tormented by the biggest ‘what if?’ of them all, he sought answers in the bottle.
“I turned to alcohol very heavy after that,” he sighs. “There’s no question that it had a big effect on my songwriting. I got to the point where I drank every day and it almost destroyed my family life. My personal physical condition was getting very bad until I started counting my blessings.”
A true musical innovator, Perkins started out working the cotton fields of Tennessee. His first guitar was made of a cigar box and a length of baling wire, and he was one of the first players to add rhythm to country music, creating what became known as rockabilly. The power of the result, as heard in countless Sun recordings, stands as pure and inarguable as it did back in the 1950s. Yet by the early 1960s, Perkins was unknown in his homeland.
Then, in 1964, he hit Britain with  Chuck Berry, and reaped the rewards of his influence on the Beatles. George Harrison has virtually learned his guitar style from a Carl Perkins LP. “A lot of the kids liked me, and I got a renewed feeling about myself.”
Cash and Perkins (right)
The drinking didn’t stop, and in 1965, Perkins became guitarist on the Johnny Cash Show. “He and I put our habits together. John had a very bad drug habit and I was an alcoholic. But the two of us straightened our lives out.”
Today, having come to terms with his past, Perkins is in fine shape. Like Cash, he has found solace in the Lord, and also come to recognise his musical strengths. Born to Rock, his latest set, is a creditable return to first principles, balancing sprightly rockabilly with sad old country laments. The album was recorded in the old-fashioned way, with all but backing singers The Jordanaires playing together in the studio, recording the song as a complete entity, rather than as the sum of multi-tracked parts. “You get an incentive to really try to play licks when you’re looking at a player sitting across from you, and you get those smiles and eye contacts.”
It’s also the way it used to be on the Sun recordings. And, though the studio building has been mythologised by musicians and actors from U2 to Dennis Quaid, Perkins locates the secret of the Sun sound in the people. “Every artist that walked in there was thrilled to death to get on a record,” he says. “Plus the fact that Sam Phillips made you reach down there and give it everything you had. And he’d take mistakes with it. I’d tell him a lot of times, ‘I’m sorry, Mr Phillips, I made a terrible mistake on that guitar.’ He’d say, ‘Yeah, but listen, I’ll show you where you made up for it.’ So overall, the man might just have been a recording genius and nobody realised it.
“There wasn’t a clock on the wall in Sun studio. If you took all night, he didn’t care. You go into Nashville and the players are sitting looking at their watches, and they know that after three hours they’re gonna start getting time and a half.”
Having rediscovered his strengths, Perkins is concentrating on staying fit and enjoying being number one in his home. He’s been happily married for 37 years, and counts his pro-family anthem Daddy Sang Bass (a hit for Johnny Cash) as his best piece of work.
“You know, when all this is over,” he reflects, “and Carl Perkins is being laid to rest, I’d just like for anyone that walks by to say, ‘Well, when he did get his life together, and realised that he had more left than he lost by not getting to be a big superstar, the old dude really tried, and he left us a song that I really want to listen to again.”
Interview October 1989