Top: Carl Perkins, Jay Perkins, W.S Holland, Clayton Perkins, c. 1956. Bottom: Scotty Moore, Elvis Presley, Bill Black, Memphis, September 9, 1954. One of my favorite stories Carl shared in his biography, is how he met Elvis.
“ In the fall of 1954,Carl and his wife Valda, with their newborn son Stan, had moved into Parkview Courts, itwas government housing that was constructedin Jackson, Tennesee, in the early 1950′s. He sat relaxing in the living room, after finishing his morning errands, strumming his guitar, when he heard Valda scream in his name.
He leaped out of his seat – in what I can imagine, (not saying it happened) set down his guitar, knocked his cup of ice over, fell down once or twice, followed by curses and rushed to the kitchen wide-eyed. ‘’Carl, listen to this!” Valda demanded. “Listen! They play like y’all! It sounds like you!’’ Valda told him, and he listened to the radio that was playing ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ sung by a band and singer who’s style resembled his and his brother’s bands, The Perkins Brothers, style. Yet it wasn’t quite the same. ‘’His style is a lot like mine.’’ Carl agreed.
At the time Carl had been making efforts to get his music “out of Jackson,” as he would tell his biographer David McGee. He received what he viewed as encouraging sign from one of the New York record companies. The label had rejected his tape, but someone enclosed a note with the return package. It read: “We think your music is interesting, but we don’t know where it fits in with what we are promoting right now.” Carl took strength from the negative response, but Valda was curious as to how he saw rejection as a positive event. “That’s what I want them to say, Valda!” Carl explained. “The music’s not bad but they don’t know what it is! Someday somebody will know what it is.”
The song ended, Carl stood in the kitchen, while Valda continued ironing. He was still chewing over what he just heard. He spent eight years performing in Honky Tonks, chasing the dream of becoming a radio star and performing at the Grand Ole Opry, since he was a little boy, in Lake County, all of it, had wound down to a single moment when he finally heard someone who wasn’t sorta hitting close to his sound but was right on it. Then the disc jockey announced the singer’s name and the new record company in the Memphis area that he was a part of. Finally the day he’d been waiting for, arrived, somebody out there knew what to do with his kind of music. Thus Carl concluded and announced to Valda ‘’There’s a man in Memphis who understands what we’re doing. I need to go see him.’’
Before making the trip to Memphis, Carl and his brothers, Jay and Clayton, went to Bethel Springs, to see who the cat singing on the radio was, Elvis Presley. The gym had about a hundred people on hand in a place, that Carl observed could hold nearly three hundred. Still, Carl found it interesting that most of those present were young teens, as opposed to the older crowd him and his brothers was used to seeing at the tonks. Until that moment it hadn’t occurred to him that his style of music might appeal to this audience.
In what I can imagine, but probably didn’t happen, Carl shared his observation with his brothers. ‘’There’s gotta be hundred people here.’’ He smiled, surprised to see such a young the audience, in comparison to the older crowd he and his brothers were use to seeing at the tonks. ‘’Could fit more.’’ Jay said, not sharing Carl’s enthusiasm. In what I assume, Carl shrugged off Jay’s lack of enthusiasm, the show was about to start.
The band walked out on stage. The bass player, Bill Black and guitar player, Scotty Moore were dressed conservatively in comparison to Elvis, who wore a pink shirt, a white sports coat, black slacks, and his shirt collar turnt up.
The girls screamed, and he played them, grinning, “as he stalked the floor, like a panther.” Carl recalled.Though experience had taught Carl that Presley’s flirtatiousness and pantherlike pacing masked a bad case of the nerves. He knew all the cover-ups too from playing years at the tonks. All the while girls screamed and shouted, while boys applauded and egged him on. Carl had seen similar responses in the tonks, but he never knew if it was genuine excitement for their music, or just the alcohol taking hold–Here, it was no question, it was the music, and it was the artist.
They kicked off with ‘That’s All Right,’ Carl moved up closer to the stage, standing off to the side. Presley, jitterbugged, still playing, then slung his guitar back behind him, dancing. Hips swiveling, shaking his legs, dancing with the mic stand like it was his beloved. The crowd loved it.
By the end of the show, Presley took his bow, and backed away from the mic, but his leg got tangled up in Scotty Moore’s amplifier cord, and he fell square on his backside. Applause followed, he jumped up and scooted to the exit.
‘’I gotta say somethin’ to him.’’ Carl told Jay and Clayton. They exited, and made their way to the back of the building. The band was packing their gear in the car. ‘’Sure enjoyed the show, man.’’ Carl said as he approached Elvis, Jay and Clayton lingered behind. ‘’You sure can sing. Ya’ll are good, pickin’an singin’.’’ ‘’Well, thank you.’’ Elvis said softly. He turned to look towards Scotty and Bill, Carl saw the bad case of acne on Presley’s neck, the collar hid it–least from afar. ‘’Thank you.’’ He said again. ‘’Reckon they takin’ on anybody down there at Sun Records?’’ Carl asked. ‘’I don’t really know’’ Elvis stared at Carl, and Carl stared back, then he pointed to Jay and Clayton, ‘’Well, this is my brothers there. We play about the same type thing you do.’’ ‘’Well, good, man. Good.’’ Elvis answered. Another pause, ‘’I guess we better be goin’; we gotta get on back to Memphis.’’
An awkward goodbye and Presley got into the car, and they were gone. ‘’He ain’t gonna last long,’’ Jay announced. ‘’They’ll be some of them red dogs, tear him up, beat him to death.’’ ‘’I don’t know whether they will or not,’’ Carl mused. ‘’Why would they wanna whip him?’’ ‘’Cause he’s sissy-lookin’.’’ ‘’Well that don’t mean you’re gonna whip the son of a bitch because he looks sissy!’’ ‘’Well, you know he’s sissy!’’ Jay persisted. ‘’I don’t know he’s sissy, Jay.’’ ‘’Then what he wanna wear pink for?’’ Carl shrugged. ‘’I don’t know. He thinks he’s pretty, maybe.’’ ‘’He ain’t near as pretty as he thinks he is,’’ said Jay, the man’s man. ‘’You know he is too, Jay. We ought not to be talkin’ about him. We oughta be pullin’ for him, because he’s sellin’ records and we may have a chance down in Memphis.”
Paraphrased & Summarized, Go, Cat, Go! The Life and Times of Carl Perkins. pg 78 - 83.
Carl Perkins playing at the opening of a Jackson hardware store in the early ‘50s. Jay is behind him on rhythm guitar. / Go, Cat, Go! The Life and Times of Carl Perkins.
Carl truly adored his older brother Jay, his presence meant the world to him, he was his left arm brother that he could count to always be there, whether it was in a fight or on stage playing rhythm guitar. He loved his brother and it hurt him deeply when he passed away. I’m reminded of a story Carl shared of Jay, back when they were kids, expressing that love.
“I remembered our growing-up years back on the bayou. I remembered my first day of school and Jay’s words, “Carl, now don’t you be scared. You ain’t got no reason to worry. Most of the kids your age can’t even write their names. But look at you. You already know how to write it, you can count to a hundred, and you even know two and two makes four.” He took me to my class, and when he turned to walk down the corridor a lump came to my throat. But Jay would always meet me at lunchtime to give me my share of biscuits and fatback mom had packed for us. And he never failed to ask, “Carl, did you get good marks today?” When I answered that I had, he’d smile and say, “See, Carl, I told you you would do it.” His words were all it took to inspire me to do my best. ”
- Carl Perkins, Disciple in Blue Suede Shoes, pg. 66.