Carl Perkins didn’t have Elvis’s voice and looks. He didn’t have Johnny Cash’s dark pathos. He didn’t have Jerry Lee’s barely contained lunacy. As Sun Records legends go, he was plain-looking, balding and ordinary sounding. However, he wrote and recorded a clutch of stone-cold rockabilly classics, added to which he brought his twangy, wiggly ‘Perkins Shuffle’ guitar sound. ‘Blue Suede Shoes‘ might be his lasting contribution to the world (via Presley’s bop-pill fuelled rendition) but it only sits midway in the best of his compositions. Fair’s fair, a lot of these songs are essentially ‘the same song’. But it’s a damn good song. And Perkins recorded it first, the rest followed.
Young George Harrison of Liverpool totally adored Perkins. So did the rest of his Beatle chums. Carl’s star only shone for a handful of years. He spent a long time touring as part of good friend Johnny Cash’s live show, only stepping out from the backing group for a song or two.
Carl’s 1985 TV ‘Rockabilly Session’ is a Sky Arts must-see. George, Ringo and many others queue up to pay the man his dues. It’s worth watching for Perkin’s toupee if nothing else. He passed over the Mississippi in 1998 at the age of 65. As with many of his era, he’s more appreciated now than at any point in his lifetime. Cheers Carl.
Number 10: ‘Dixie Fried’ (b-side, 1956)
Nestling somewhere between Carl’s country roots and the new-fangled rockabilly style he acquired. A homage to good times, drinking and dancing (until the cops arrive).
Number 9: ‘Her Love Rubbed Off’ (Recorded 1956 – first released 1969)
A funky, weird track by Carl’s standards. Quite the moody, minor-key chorus that rolls around with Carl pulling his tremolo bar and bending his strings in undeniably painful contortions. The Cramps covered the song beautifully; it was almost as if Carl wrote it with them in mind (despite the thirty-three years between the two releases).
Number 8: ‘Hi Heel Sneakers’ from ‘One Night in London’ (1982)
A 1964 Tommy Tucker composition, but covered by Elvis, Carl, Jerry Lee and countless others. The driving riff could easily be a Perkins trademark wiggle. He often played the song live during the interludes in ‘The Johnny Cash Show’ when Carl stepped forward from second guitar for a few songs.
Number 7: ‘Put Your Cat Clothes On’ (Recorded 1956 – first released 1973)
Recorded at Sun, on the same day as ‘Matchbox’. Jerry Lee’s piano pyrotechnics are unmistakable. It’s very similar to ‘Hi Heel Sneakers’; Carl could probably have sued Tucker for a co-writing credit. The song’s fast and furious; like many of the best rockabilly tunes where the band are playing hell for leather and just about keeping it together. Joyous. Not actually released at the time. It didn’t appear until it was included on the 1973 ‘Sun Rockabillys’ compilation.
Number 6: ‘Gone, Gone, Gone’ (B-side, 1955)
Listeners will need to excuse Carl’s misogyny (fairly regularly). Particularly here. A song not really about anything, other than Carl’s ‘baby’ being identifiably big and fat.
Number 5: ‘Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby’ from ‘Dance Album of Carl Perkins’ (1957)
Little George Harrison’s favourite. He often played and sang it during early Beatles shows. It was even immortalised on ‘Beatles For Sale’ (1964) with more slap-back echo on the vocal than was really needed. The song itself was a 1930s country standard that Carl souped up in his trademark style. More ‘misogyny lite’ for your enjoyment. It was when he was at his happiest, bless him!
Number 4: ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ (single, 1956)
Elvis might arguably have done it better. But Carl certainly wrote better songs, such as… Number 3.
Number 3: ‘Boppin’ The Blues’ (single, 1956)
Again, a song about nothing much, other than dancing and playing blues music fast and furiously. Carl still loves his baby, but the music has taken him and he can’t resist. She’s going to have to wait her turn.
Number 2: ‘Honey Don’t’ (b-side, 1956)
An unusual (by Carl’s standards) descending chord verse structure, but a stone-cold classic, much repeated, two-word chorus. Honey Don’t. Just don’t. Whatever it is you’re doing, or thinking of doing, just don’t. The ‘Perkins Wiggle’ is a thing of beauty here. Carl was never flashy in his guitar riffs but they are beautiful, short, twangy celebrations of life.
Number 1: ‘Matchbox’ (b-side, 1957)
The best Carl Perkins song. Without question. It was the b-side of the better known ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. It was recorded on the mythical ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ day at Sun in December 1956 and based on a 1927 Blind Lemon Jefferson song (the similarities to which Carl disputed). A hypnotic riff with a sneaky, boastful lyric. Jerry Lee plays moodily in the background, supplementing the wiggle. One of the more expressive Perkins guitar breaks. Carl opines about his poverty-stricken status, but is certain that he’s got plenty to offer his baby nonetheless. Truly wonderful rockabilly. This writer can but dream of being a fly on the wall at 706 Union Avene, Memphis, during the 1950s.
There you have it. The official, indisputable, ten best Carl Perkins songs. Consider the matter closed. You’re welcome.