Carl Perkins: “Saturday Night”

Available now from Main Street Rag

Carl Perkins’ run as a rockabilly hit maker in the mid-1950s was brief, marked primarily by his recording of his song “Blue Suede Shoes,” which Elvis Presley would make into an even bigger hit.  Yet, he was an architect of the style, perhaps even an influence on Elvis, and certainly an influence (less than a decade later) on The Beatles, whose early repertoire featured a number of Perkins’ songs.  Whether, as Paul McCartney is reputed to have said, there’d be no Beatles without Perkins, Perkins’ guitar style is a key building block of George Harrison’s playing.  “Boppin’ the Blues,” “Honey Don’t,” “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby,” “Dixie Fried,” and other songs that Perkins wrote and recorded while at Sun Records in the mid-1950s are chapter and verse of the Gospel of Rockabilly.

But why wasn’t Carl Perkins an even bigger star.  The usual explanation is that he wasn’t as sexy as Elvis.  When he and Elvis would share a stage in the era when they were local draws and not yet national stars, the boys in the audience were watching Carl’s hands for the chords and bends, while the girls were watching Elvis’s hips or fixated on that sweet come-hither sneer that seemed to come so naturally to him.  But there’s another factor to consider: Perkins was, for better and for worse, more country, more rural than Elvis.  Listen to his first few Sun singles (the first actually on Flip).  They’re not rockabilly but a continuation of late 1940s, early 1950s country music right down to the fiddle, instead of guitar, taking the instrumental breaks.  For Perkins, blue suede shoes were Saturday night—and then came Sunday morning church and Monday was back into the field working the cotton or tobacco.    In Presley’s rockabilly, Saturday night is all week long and all night long, too, and blue suede shoes are a matter of style—a declaration of an identity, an imagined world where no hip teen will spend his years plowing behind a mule.  One might even say that Presley’s recording of “Blue Suede Shoes” is Presley transforming rockabilly from folk to pop.  In Presley’s rockabilly world, any trace of “hillbilly” (that pejorative term for being Southern, white, and poor) is so completely expunged that rockabilly could take its country energy even into the teen scene of white suburbia.  While in Carl’s rockabilly world, getting “Dixie Fried” on a Saturday night is only a moment of ecstatic escape from an adult world of consequences and always leads to an actual hangover and, often as not, to waking up in the local jail.  In the rockabilly of Elvis, the word “hillbilly,” a marker of class and region, would never occur.  He would never record “Put Your Cat Clothes On”—a song Perkins seems to have written and recorded hoping (and failing) to repeat the chart success of “Blue Suede Shoes.”  Check out the lyrics of the first two verses:

Well, they took my blue suede shoes down to ol’ Mobile
Got to rockin’ with the rhythm, run ’em over at the heel
Put you cat clothes on
Cause tonight we’re gonna really rock it right
Yeah Kitty, put your cat clothes on
Cause tonight we’re gonna really bop it right

Well I slicked up myself till I looked like a dilly
I run down town to get my female hillbilly
Put you cat clothes on
Cause tonight we’re gonna really rock it right
Kitty, put your cat clothes on
Cause tonight we’re gonna really bop it right

In Presley’s rockabilly, the last line of the verses would be “Cause we’re gonna really bop it right.”  And symbolic shoes wouldn’t ever be “run…over at the heel.”  And Ms. Kitty would never be designated a “hillbilly.”

In 1956, New Orleans singer Smiley Lewis hit #11 on the R&B charts with “One Night (Of Sin),” which opens “One night of sin is what I’m now paying for.”  In late 1958 Elvis Presley released his version, with the opening line altered to “One night with you is what I’m now praying for.”  Even though RCA execs, not Presley, pushed for changing the lyrics, presumably because the notion of a “night of sin” wasn’t appropriate for white teen record buyers (especially, it seems, for white teen girls up North who might buy the 45), the shift is telling.  In the Lewis version, one-night stands happen, even though “a sin,” and they have consequences.  In the Presley version, the lyrics offer “one night” as if the dreamy fulfillment would be the happily ever after of a technicolor Doris Day movie (even as the vocal inflections evoke a different sort of night in a kind of have your cake and eat it too fantasy).  In Lewis’s “One Night,” the action is sex.  In Presley’s, there is the pretend of no action. Sex/Love (with maybe sex).  Blues/Pop (teened up as rock & roll).  Reality/Fantasy.  Black/White (the 1950s cultural divide by which “Work With Me Annie” leading to “Annie Had a Baby” is recast for white teens as “Dance With Me Henry” and, thank you, no follow up needed).

And what might this have to do with Carl Perkins’ rockabilly?  Like the rhythm & blues of the late 1940s and early 1950s, country music in that same era was a commercial music anchored in the reality-oriented world of folk culture, and that reality includes the consequences and limitations of adult life.  Perkins projects, in his rockabilly, moments of escape, breaking through the country-base of his music.  In Perkins’ music, a Saturday night rockabilly cat is still a hillbilly when Monday morning rolls around.  Even blue suede shoes run over at the heel.

Contextual Material:

The internet is replete with material on Carl Perkins.  Cub Koda’s All-Music Guide Carl Perkins entry is a good place to start.

Recommended Listening:

The Bear Family label’s Carl Rocks supplements the core of his Sun Records achievement with a smattering of his best later rocking tracks for other labels.  Neither this set nor this entry touches on Perkins’ later career as a country song writer or his time as part of the Johnny Cash Show.

The following four links are to YouTube clips of Perkins playing a few of his rockabilly classics on TV in the later 1950s.  The sound quality varies, but this was how many of us first encountered Perkins and rockabilly.  Think of it as American Idol sans facade:

What these performances lack in production value is offset by the way they demonstrate the synthesis of Perkins as guitarist, vocalist, and writer (or, in the case of “Matchbox,” adapter).

Ticket Stubs & Liner Notes is available from Main Street Rag Publishing

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