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Remembering Carl Perkins.

Singer, songwriter and guitarist Carl Perkins died yesterday at the age of 65. He died of complications from a series of strokes. Perkins is the pioneer of a style of music called Rockabilly, which is described as "a country man's song with a black man's rhythm." He's the man who wrote "Blue Suede Shoes," the hit song sung by Elvis Presley which became the first Sun label record to sell over a million copies. CARL Perkins also wrote the songs, "Matchbox," "Honey Don't," and "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby" which have been recorded by the Beatles. Perkins, born in Tennessee, learned to play guitar from his uncle and formed a band with his two brothers before touring the South with Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. It was Cash who gave Perkins the idea for the song, "Blue Suede Shoes." In 1996 Perkins wrote his autobiography (w/David McGee) "Go, Cat, Go!"(Hyperion) (REBROADCAST from 10/29/96)

44:02

Other segments from the episode on January 20, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 20, 1998: Obituary for Carl Perkins; Review of George Copeland's album "George Copeland: The Victor Solo Recordings."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JANUARY 20, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 012001NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Carl Perkins
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Carl Perkins, one of the originators of rockabilly, died yesterday of complications related to a series of strokes. He was 65. We're going to remember him today by playing back a 1996 interview.

Our conversation between mystery writer P.D. James and FRESH AIR book critic Maureen Corrigan has been postponed until tomorrow.

Carl Perkins' singing, guitar-playing, and songwriting brought together country and rock and roll. He recorded at Sun Records in Memphis during the label's hey-day, when its roster included Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash.

Perkins was probably best known for writing the song "Blue Suede Shoes." In 1956, his version of Blue Suede Shoes was a pop, rhythm and blues, and country hit. Then, Elvis had a huge hit with the song. Perkins also wrote "Honey Don't," which was recorded by the Beatles. More recently, his songs were recorded by Dolly Parton, The Judds, and George Strait (ph).

Here's Perkins performing his best-known song.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "BLUE SUEDE SHOES")

CARL PERKINS, SINGER, SINGING: Well it's one for the money
Two for the show
Three to get ready
Now go cat go

But don't you
Step on my blue suede shoes
You can do anything
But lay off my blue suede shoes

Well you can knock me down
Step on my face
Slander my name
All over the place

And do anything
That you wanna do
But uh-uh honey
Lay off of my shoes

Don't you
Step on my blue suede shoes
You can do anything
But lay off of my blue suede shoes

GROSS: Carl Perkins, welcome to FRESH AIR.

PERKINS: Thank you, Terry. It's a pleasure to be here.

GROSS: I'd love to hear the story of how you wrote Blue Suede Shoes.

PERKINS: Well, I'd love to share it with you. It was October the 21st, 1955. I was playing what we called back in those days a "honky-tonk." They call them "clubs" now. But it was a honky-tonk where people get together and scream and holler and dance and have a good time.

And I had not owned a pair of blue suede shoes at this point. I'd seen a few of them around my hometown in Jackson, Tennessee. And -- but at the end of a song, this couple had been dancing -- a very attractive young lady and a cat that had on a pair of blue suedes. And at the end of the song, he said: "huh-uh, don't step on my suedes."

And it -- it bothered me, you know. Not having owned a pair, I didn't realize that, you know, if you step on 'em, you kind of -- you gotta brush 'em off a little bit. It discolors the toe of them. But the thing that bothered me was he thought that much of a pair of stupid shoes to actually hurt her feelings.

So I went home that night and I -- I just -- I could not go to sleep. I mean, I just kept seeing her face and she said: "oh, I'm sorry." And she really was. And I laid there and I thought of the old nursery rhyme, "one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, and four to go." I got up -- went down the concrete steps.

I was living in a government project house. And I got my guitar down and I said: "well, it's one for the money, ta dum dum, two for the show." And I never will forget, I couldn't find any paper to write on, because we had two small children, my wife Velda (ph), who thank God is still with me after 44 years.

We -- all of our folks lived close by so I guess we had no need to have, you know, writing paper. So I took three ash (ph) potatoes out of a brown paper sack...

GROSS: Oh, no.

PERKINS: ... I did -- and bless her heart, she saved that sack -- the original words to Blue Suede Shoes is hanging in my den in Jackson, Tennessee. And I never will forget -- I called Sam Phillips at Sun Studios down here in Memphis, who had a boy by the name of Elvis who had a couple of records already out at that time. And I said: "Mr. Phillips, I wrote me a good song last night." He said: "what is it?" I said: "I guess we'll call it maybe Blue Suede Shoes." He said: "is it anything like "Oh, Them Golden Slippers?"

LAUGHTER

I said: "no, man. This is about a cat that don't want nobody stepping on him." He said: "It sounds interesting."

GROSS: Now -- now as you pointed out, the nursery rhyme is "three to get ready and four to go"...

PERKINS: "And four to go."

GROSS: So how did it ...

PERKINS: Yeah.

GROSS: ... become "go cat go"?

PERKINS: Well, the original line there that I came up with, I said: "three to get ready, now go, man, go." I wrote the song "go, man, go." And the first attempt I made at recording it, I said "go, man." And then I got excited because I could tell through the glass control window that Mr. Phillips was liking this song. And I -- I got excited and forgot the word "man." There -- on my original record, there is a slight pause. I said: "three to get ready now go, cat, go, but don't you..." -- the word "cat" flew in there instead of "man."

And after I got through with it, he said: "that's it." I said: "Mr. Phillips, I made a terrible mistake. I called that man a 'cat'." He said: "I heard you, and he's going to stay a cat."

LAUGHTER

GROSS: Now, this was the first rock and roll record to top the pop charts, rhythm and blues charts, and country charts at the same time.

PERKINS: Yeah, it was.

GROSS: And a lot of people made their own recordings of Blue Suede Shoes -- Lawrence Welk among them.

LAUGHTER

PERKINS: He sure did. Pee Wee King (ph) and the Golden West Cowboys -- there was every kind of version. And you know, to this day, Terry, this song still gets put on albums all around the world. It's amazing. You ought to hear it in the Japanese language. It's...

GROSS: Yeah.

LAUGHTER

Oh, yeah.

PERKINS: It's -- yeah.

GROSS: Now, of course Elvis Presley...

PERKINS: Oh, bless his heart.

GROSS: ... did a version of your song.

PERKINS: Yeah.

GROSS: How did he end up doing it?

PERKINS: Well, I'm glad you asked me that because I -- I'd like for the -- as many people as possible to know this about this wonderful boy. I knew Elvis in 1954 when I first came to Sun Records. I worked the schoolhouses. We were booked by the same disk jockey here in Memphis -- fellow by the name of Bob Neal (ph). We played high school auditoriums together. I -- I thought I recognized a super talent. This boy was one of the nicest fellows I'd ever been around off the stage.

And when he hit the stage, he was -- he was just -- completely generated high-powered hip-shaking. He couldn't help that. He wouldn't -- you can go back and find where a lot of people copied Elvis, but you can't find who Elvis copied. Elvis was an original.

And you know, this guy was absolutely great. And I'm leading up to answer your question. When my record came out, January the second, 1956 -- Blue Suede Shoes -- RCA Victor contacted Elvis. They had bought him from Sun Records at that point. And they said: "Elvis, there's a hit song out there. You need to -- we want you to get in the studio and record it."

He says: "There's a lot of hits out there. What are -- what are you talking about?" And Steve Scholls (ph) allegedly was a man who recorded Elvis back in the early part of his career at Victor, said the song is Blue Suede Shoes. He said: "yes, sir. You're right. I think it's a hit song myself, but that's my friend, Carl Perkins, and that's a Sun Record."

And he didn't want to do that song at the time they wanted him to, which was in January of 1956. He waited until April of that year, letting my record do what it was going to, and then he recorded it. And that was the kind of guy he was. You know, he could have jumped on it first and nobody would have ever known Carl Perkins existed. But because of the nature of this fine individual, human being named Elvis, he wanted me to have success with it and he thought I would have if he stayed off of it, and that's what he did.

GROSS: What do you think of his version?

PERKINS: I loved it. You know, I fell into the trap -- Elvis did it faster than I did. And I loved -- in the music industry, we call it "the groove" -- the beat that he put to it was up-tempo from mine quite a bit. And I loved his so much 'til I drifted into doing it like he did, you know, faster.

And when I -- I met the Beatles in 1964 in England, and they -- we was at a party and they wanted me to do, you know, Blue Suede Shoes. And I did. And Harrison said: "why don't you do it like you did it?" I said: "well, I -- I think I am." He said: "no, you're not."

My record was: "well, it's one for the money, ta dum dum" -- a definite two-stops, you know. And Elvis was: "well, it's one for the money, pow, two for the show, pow." It was a one-lick. And Harrison was really disturbed with that. He said: "man, you do it different than anybody ever did, and now you're doing it like everybody else."

But I really liked Elvis' record of it. I -- I still to this day do. And I catch myself unconsciously speedin' it up to the very groove he had it.

GROSS: I'm going to play Elvis' version of your song, Blue Suede Shoes.

PERKINS: Go, cat.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, ELVIS PRESLEY PERFORMING "BLUE SUEDE SHOES")

ELVIS PRESLEY, SINGER, SINGING: Well it's one for the money
Two for the show
Three to get ready
Now go cat go

But don't you
Step on my blue suede shoes
Well you can do anything
But stay off of my blue suede shoes

Well you can knock me down
Step on my face
Slander my name
All over the place

Well, do anything
That you want to do
But uh-uh honey
Lay off of them shoes

And don't you
Step on my blue suede shoes

GROSS: That's Elvis Presley singing Carl Perkins' song Blue Suede Shoes. Carl Perkins is my guest. He has a new autobiography called "Go Cat Go."

When Elvis Presley had his hit of this, you were in the hospital recovering from a car accident?

PERKINS: That's right. Yeah, I had a very serious accident on my way to the Perry Como Show, March the 22nd of the year 1956. And I watched Elvis from my hospital bed on the Jackie Gleason Show, I believe it was, or maybe the Dorsey Brothers. It was one of the early appearances and he said: "I want to do my new record."

I was in a cast from my waist up. I got a fractured neck. My shoulder were -- I was hurt pretty bad, as well as my brother, who died as a result of that wreck. But he said: "I want to do my new record. Well, there's a one for the money" -- and I like a broke out of my cast. I said: "wow." And I mean, it was -- it was exciting because I didn't know that he was going to record it, and when I saw him do it live, I was -- you know, I was -- I was real proud.

GROSS: We're listening to a 1996 interview with Carl Perkins, who died yesterday at the age of 65. We'll hear more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back to our 1996 interview with Carl Perkins.

Did you think of yourself as trying something new? Of bringing together rock and roll and country?

PERKINS: Well, we didn't know exactly what we were doing, Terry, but we did know that it was different. We did know that instead of leaning back and setting comfortably in their theater seats or wherever we were playing, these people were scooting around moving. Some were getting up, shaking. Young people were dancing in the aisles.

And we knew that we were -- we were causing a stir with this. And -- and it wasn't, as far as I was concerned or any of the guys in the early days, we didn't feel like it was anything wrong with what we were doing. We were just putting life into -- we borrowed from country. We borrowed from rhythm and blues and Southern gospel. And, that's what it was.

GROSS: So, everybody was moving around in a frenzy when you were playing.

PERKINS: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: What were you doing on stage when...

PERKINS: I was movin' with them. I was jumping out of my shoes -- jumping back in 'em, across 'em. You know, it -- it -- and I still, even at 64 years old, I cannot stand still on stage and play rockabilly music. I can't. I don't jump as high and as far, but I move. I can't -- I can't do it any other way, you know.

GROSS: Did you -- did you develop that style playing in honky-tonks?

PERKINS: Oh, yeah. You -- you moved there because of a flying bottle or an ashtray flying at some cat's head close to the stage. Yeah, you're on your toes playing in those places. And even, you know, back in those years, I was playing the same kind of music that was later recorded in Memphis in '54. I started playing the tonks when I was, gosh, 16, 17 years old.

And I played -- I did Roy Acuff's (ph) "Gray Speckled Bird" or "Wabash Cannonball," but I -- you know, I'd say: "what a beautiful thought, Lord I'm thinking -- ta dum, ta ta dum" -- that old upright bass. We -- my daddy, we used to tell me, he'd say: "Son, put that guitar back on the nail. You are messin' up Mr. Acuff's song. He don't do it that fast and there ain't no need'n you do it."

And rest my mama's soul, it was her who would say: "Buck, leave the little fellow alone. He's not hurting Mr. Acuff's song." And because of what she would say to him, he backed off of me, and I just always felt good playing my songs up-tempo because that's the music I heard in the cotton fields. I picked cotton with many, many black people, and we'd start singing. They would. And I'd start singing with them.

Two or three o'clock in the afternoon, with the sun beating down on you, you know, I can hear Uncle John Westbrook (ph) saying, "mmm-hmmmm" about 10 rows over, Sister Juanita, "oh, hoo-oh, yeah, yeah, yeah." And my little blood would start boiling. I'd say: "wow, they fixing to sing." "don' lay down, my burden -- ta, dum, dum."

The ones who didn't know the words used their voices -- "oom, ba, ba, oom, ba, pa" -- and to this day, Terry, I can vividly hear that up-tempo gospel music. Then I'd go home and night and get my old beat up guitar off the wall from the nail, and I tried to make the strings, you know, sound like the voices I was hearing.

When I'd do, "some glad morning" -- my bass string would go: "dum, dum, dum, do, dum, da, do, dum." That was filling in for the sounds of the voices I heard in the cotton fields. I grew up that way. Nobody told me it was wrong -- that wasn't the way to play music. So I -- I just, you know, I just stayed with it and I'm still with it.

GROSS: Now your guitar sound was also influenced, I think, by Les Paul. And I think the first guitar...

PERKINS: Yeah.

GROSS: ... you really loved was a Les Paul guitar.

PERKINS: Oh, tell me about it. I paid $5 a week on that jewel in 1954. I wore the end of my nose off standing on the outside of the music store with my nose pressed against the window looking in at it. And finally, Mr. John Tolwater (ph), who owned the music store, came to the front door. My brother Jay and I, he said: "come in guys."

He'd been seeing us standing out there on Saturdays, and he handed -- he got that guitar down off the rack and handed it to me. And I -- I don't -- I must have had a certain look about me, because he told me after that, he said: "I just couldn't take it away from you. I just felt that that guitar would inspire you." And it did that.

GROSS: What did you like about Les Paul's sound that you wanted to get yourself?

PERKINS: Well, he had a -- you know, he was way ahead of his time, and by that I mean he was a -- a -- he was a cat that understood electronics. He was into multi-tracking. By that I mean, he'd put down like the lead part of the -- of the guitar, you know -- "da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da." And then on another track, he'd be, "da, da, da, da, da, da." He'd play the harmony. And then he'd mix them together. And he was warping my mind. I said: "good gracious, he must have 10 fingers on each hand. I mean, he's just -- he's doing so much."

And I started trying to figure out -- and in doing that, I learned how to pop my guitar strings with the fingers I was making the chords with. I'd kick them up and back, and it'd kind of give you a little click, click, click -- a little clicking sound. And it -- it just kind of made it -- I didn't realize it at the time, but it made -- it made this sound a little bit different to what the ordinary guys were doing.

But it was Les Paul and his technique that -- that really brought about, if I have a different style of guitar playing, it's because of him, really, and not knowing what he was doing, and trying to copy him, too.

GROSS: I'm going to play your recording of Honey, Don't.

PERKINS: All right.

GROSS: Tell me -- tell me what you're doing on guitar on this.

PERKINS: Well, mostly I'm making a lot of mistakes and trying to remember where I made 'em and make 'em at the same place again, which is impossible when you don't know what you're doing to start with. But I -- that -- that song was a little bit ahead of its time.

Back in that period, you had "E," "A," and "B," like "G," "C," and "D." These chords are "pattern" chords. They follow each other. And I went from E down to C. I said, you know, "well how come you say you will, when you won't, ta, da, da, da, da."

And Scotty Moore, the guitar player with Elvis, I remember when I'd just written it, he said: "you -- you can't do that. You can't go from E down to C." I said: "why can't I?" He said: "it don't fit." I said: "well, it don't sound that bad." And it was different. But that's -- that's what's going on with that song, Honey Don't. It was a little bit, I think, maybe before it's time melody-wise 'cause I did go from E to C, but that's -- that's about all I did. But it was a little different.

GROSS: Carl Perkins, recorded in 1996. He died yesterday at the age of 65. We'll hear more of the Perkins interview in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "HONEY DON'T")

PERKINS, SINGING: Well how come you say you will when you won't?
You tell me you do, baby, when you don't
Let me know honey how you feel
Tell the truth, now, is love real?
Or uh-uh, oh, honey, don't

Well, honey don't
Honey, don't
No, honey don't
Hey, honey don't
Say you will when you won't
Huh-uh, honey don't

Well I love you, baby, and you ought to know
I like the way that you wear your clothes
Everything about you is so dog-gone sweet
You got that sand all over your feet
So uh-uh, hey, honey don't

Honey, don't
Honey, don't
Well, honey don't
Huh-uh, honey don't
Honey don't
Say you will when you won't
Huh-uh, honey don't

Hang on, children
Let's rock now

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with more of our 1996 interview with Carl Perkins. He died yesterday at the age of 65.

Perkins was an originator of rockabilly, the music that in the mid-'50s first brought together country and rock and roll. His best known songs are Blue Suede Shoes and Honey Don't. Perkins' biggest hits were recorded at Sun, the Memphis record label which also first recorded Elvis Presley.

There's a great story about how you ended up going to Memphis to record at -- at the Sun studios. Your wife heard Elvis Presley on the radio singing "Blue Moon of Kentucky," and she called you and she said: "look, there's someone on the radio who sounds like you," because you and Elvis were both putting together country music, rhythm and blues, and...

PERKINS: That's right.

GROSS: ... rock and roll. And when you heard that, you went right to Memphis to the Sun studios to see if Sam Phillips would record you, too.

PERKINS: You're right about that.

GROSS: So, was he -- was he willing to give you a shot right away? Did you have to work hard to convince him?

PERKINS: If I hadn't have felt that was my only opportunity, I would have -- I wouldn't even have turned around. I'd a put it in reverse and backed back to Jackson, because he wasn't there when I walked in. My brothers were sitting out in the car, and I went into the little front office there, and a lady by the name of Marian Keisler (ph), who was Sam Phillips' secretary -- who was really the lady who found Elvis Presley. She told Sam about this good-looking boy and how unique he sang. He came in to make a record for his mama. He paid $3 for it. It was called "Memphis Recording Service" then.

But I walked in, and -- and I guess she could tell by looking at me that I was a hungry guitar picker. And she said: "if you've come to audition, you're out of luck because we got this boy Elvis and he's more than we can handle, so Mr. Phillips is not listening to anybody." I said: "well, I appreciate it. Is it all right we set out front for a while 'til he gets here?"

And just a few seconds after -- or a few minutes, really, after that, he pulled in. And he got a little close to my old Plymouth 'cause I was in his parking place in -- right in the front door. And he whipped in there in that two-tone '54 Cadillac Coupe deVille. I never will forget it. It was dark blue and light blue, and he got out, he had on a dark blue pair of pleated pants, with a light blue coat. I said: "wow, that's either Elvis Presley or the cat that owns this place."

LAUGHTER

And I -- I beat him to the front door. I had my foot in the door. I said: "Mr. Phillips, I'm Carl Perkins. That's my brothers setting there in the car." And I was talking 90 miles an hour. "We've come down -- we want to -- we want to make a record for you." He said: "I -- I just -- I'm too busy, man. I just -- and I."

He told me after that, he said: "Carl, I don't know why I listened to you. I had no intentions. I was wrapped up with what I was gonna do to get records pressed of this -- of this boy Elvis. But you looked like your world would have ended." And I said: "Mr. Phillips, it might have."

'Cause I -- I -- my heart was -- I was just aching to get in that studio. I just felt, you know, with encouragement from my wife, I thought I can't let Vel down. I gotta get in there. And we did.

GROSS: So Sam Phillips gave you a shot. What did he do? Ask you to play a lot of your songs?

PERKINS: He asked me -- my brother Jay had a couple of songs that he'd written. So Jay started doing one that he'd written, and he stopped him after about one verse. He said: "No, got anything else?" He did another one and got about that far, and he stopped him again. Jay liked a country singer by the name of Ernest Tubb (ph) and had developed a style like him, 'cause he loved him so much, and he sounded a little bit like him. And I never will forget, Mr. Phillips said: "Boy, there's already an Ernest Tubb. You need to forget about him. Your song's pretty good, but I can't use you guys."

And I didn't realize -- we didn't know, the microphone was still on. And he was back in the control room. I said: "Boys, don't put them away" -- they started to put their instruments, you know, back in the cases and I said: "don't put 'em up. I -- I'm going to do him one of mine. Just please don't -- it's -- we can't leave here." But he was hearing this, and he heard a convicted little old skinny-armed boy by the name of Carl Perkins, that when I got the shot, he -- I -- he walked back through there, and I said: "Mr. Phillips, will you listen to one of my songs?"

He said: "yeah, take off." So he stood there, but I got real nervous 'cause after I got past the first verse, he hadn't stopped me.

LAUGHTER

And I thought: "oh, Lord, he's -- he's gonna listen to the whole song." And I got to jumping around and I -- the first thing he said to me after I did that, he said: "that's a cute song and I like it." He said: "Can you sing standing still?" He said: "you're gonna have to because if you ever make a record, you're gonna have to stand still." I said: "yes, sir, I can do whatever you tell me to." And he said: "well, I like that song. Go home. Write you another one in that vein, and we'll talk about putting a record out."

So on the way back to Jackson in a '40 model Plymouth, I must have written 10 or 15 songs on the dashboard, and I called him back in a couple of weeks and I had a thing he liked -- it was a country song called "Turn Around." So, the first one I ever did for him was a song I wrote when I was 14 years old called "Movie Mag," and Turn Around was on the other side, and that was my first record.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear Turn Around, your first recording. And this is -- this is different from what we've heard. This isn't -- this is more of a country ballad than an up-tempo rockabilly song.

PERKINS: Yeah. Now, the song on the other side was a rockabilly country thing called Movie Mag, but he liked -- I'll tell you what, he told me -- he said: "this boy Elvis is doing -- I know where your heart is, but he's got that ball and going with it, and I can't have two of you cats sounding a lot alike and singing this -- this up-tempo." We call it "feel good music." There was no word -- no name for it at that point.

Some of the hillbillies in Nashville, I think rockabilly sprang out of there. They said, you know, these boys in Memphis are rockin' our music. So it got called "rockabilly" and it kind of stuck there. But he didn't feel like that he had room for Elvis and I doing the same kind of music. So he told me -- he said: "I'm gonna put out this song Turn Around." And then he put out another record called "Let The Juke Box Keep on Playing." On the back side of that one, was a rockabilly song called "Gone, Gone, Gone."

And then he sold Elvis to RCA Victor. And he said: "now, you can rock." And so I -- that's when I came up with Blue Suede Shoes and Honey Don't.

GROSS: Oh, that's interesting. Well why don't we hear the country ballad that you wrote...

PERKINS: All right.

GROSS: ... Turn Around.

PERKINS: Beautiful. OK.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "TURN AROUND")

PERKINS, SINGING: When you're all alone and blue
And the world looks down on you
Turn around, I'll be following you

When you feel that love is gone
And you realize you're alone
Turn around, I'll be following you

Turn around, I'll be waiting behind you
With a love that's real and never, ever die
If you feel your love will last
And you'd like to live your past
Turn around, I'll be following you

GROSS: We're featuring a 1996 interview with Carl Perkins, who died yesterday at the age of 65. We'll hear the final part of the interview after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back to our 1996 interview with rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins.

After the rockabilly era, sometime in the early '60s, your music wasn't doing that well commercially anymore, and you decided...

PERKINS: Right.

GROSS: ... to give up music...

PERKINS: Right.

GROSS: ... back then. Why did -- why did you want to give it up?

PERKINS: Well, I -- I was drinking a lot. I was drinking because I thought -- I don't -- I don't really -- I really can't pinpoint why I got so deep into alcohol. I thought it was erasing memories. It was causing me, maybe to dodge the real problems that were out there for me, and that was that crowds were falling off, my music was suffering.

But alcohol was causing most of this. You can't write -- I couldn't. I'm not speaking, you know, for anybody but myself. Alcohol cannot play a guitar very good. It can't write and it can't sing. And I was just -- I was going to the bottom of the -- of the barrel. And I -- I started trying to get off of it, and that's when I decided well, if I get away from the business and just get out on the farm, maybe I can conquer this.

But, I couldn't stay away from the alcohol. Thank God I had a good church-going wife who -- who kept raising my children in the right direction and praying that I'd see the light. And one day, I did -- and life's been wonderful ever since. But it got -- it got bad for a while. It sure did.

GROSS: Now, after you started feeling forgotten and neglected in America, you became a real hero in England.

PERKINS: Yeah.

GROSS: The Beatles did some of your songs, including Honey Don't.

PERKINS: Right. Yeah.

GROSS: How did you end up getting so popular there? Did you tour England? What...

PERKINS: Yeah, I did. I went over in 1964 with Chuck Berry, who had not been to England at that time. And the tour was very, very successful, and this was before the Beatles came to America -- a month or two before they came. And I -- I met them over there and come to find out, you know, they -- they told me that they'd been listening to a lot of my old Sun records and liked what I did, and kind of inspired them.

I think the inspiration I gave the Beatles was the fact that I wrote my own songs. I played my own lead guitar and sang my own songs. And this is what they were doing, and they said: "because you did it, we figured we could." So they made their own music, wrote their own songs, and sing 'em.

And if I inspired them, it was in that way. I don't think, and never will think, that it was my quality of music, although they're -- George Harrison does hit a little lick or two that I used on some of my earlier records, but he does it so much better than I ever did. But I -- you're right. I have been pretty successful in England, and I still go over every year and most of the years I'll do a couple of tours over there.

Rockabilly music's held up real well and for some reason or other, old Carl Perkins just feels good over there with those kids. They won't set down and I just -- I just -- you know, I come alive and rock with them. And thank God for it. I've been able to make a living there when I couldn't back in America, you know.

GROSS: Now, you also played with Johnny Cash for...

PERKINS: Yeah.

GROSS: ... about 10 years, traveling with him in his road show.

PERKINS: Yeah.

GROSS: How did that happen?

PERKINS: Johnny Cash stopped by my house back in 1965, and he'd stopped by to see me. I'd had an accident. I'd shot my foot with a shotgun and I was -- of course, I was in a cast. And he stopped by to see me. He invited me to go with him. He was going to play in Atlanta and Chattanooga. And he said: "I'll bring you back in a couple of days. You need to get out."

So, I did. I went with him. He called me out on the stage with crutches and a cast, and I did Blue Suede Shoes. And you know, I worked a lot -- recorded with John back on Sun Records, and I liked him very much. John grew up kind of like I did -- a poor sharecropper's son over in Arkansas. And we -- we remained good friends through the years.

So from those two days, it turned into 10 years. I found a safe place to be -- that -- I got off of alcohol. Cash had problems at that time. We quit together. And you know, the Statler Brothers were part of his show; Mother Maybelle (ph) and the Carter Family. There was not a lot of drinking around me. I surrounded myself.

And I just changed my routine. I stayed away from the places that I would drink at. And the load really was on Johnny Cash's shoulder. It was his show and I just opened, and it took the pressure -- there's a lot of pressure when you are the star, you know. And it was a comfortable place for me to be, and I'm glad of the 10 years that I had with Johnny Cash. He's a wonderful man.

GROSS: It sounds like there was a little AA group within Johnny Cash's roadshow.

LAUGHTER

PERKINS: You better believe it, child. There really was. And it was stemmed and stirred and -- with a steady hand by a wonderful sweet lady by the name of Maybelle Carter.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

PERKINS: She would tell Johnny and I late at night, setting on that bus: "see, you made another day. Both of you is sober and you're looking so good. Let's sing." And we'd go down the road. It was very, very touching. Those years with that sweet, gentle lady -- she had a lot to do with the turnaround that happened with Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins.

GROSS: Now what's your touring schedule like now?

PERKINS: It's -- it's pretty big, Terry. I just -- I just returned from Switzerland. I went over -- I've had three dates there. I'm doing about 100 dates a year. So I'm still out there working. I've got two of my sons that plays with me -- my drummer and my bass player; two other guys who seem like my sons.

I'm happy. I'm sober. I am -- I'm knowing from where it all comes from, and I'm out there trying to show the people I love 'em and I work as hard as I possibly can for 'em. And it's a beautiful life. It really is.

GROSS: You have a new autobiography called Go, Cat, Go.

PERKINS: Yeah.

GROSS: There's also a new record called Go, Cat, Go -- on which you perform duets with a lot of people, including Tom Petty, Paul Simon, Willie Nelson...

PERKINS: Johnny Cash.

GROSS: Johnny Cash -- yeah. Now...

PERKINS: Paul McCartney, George Harrison, John Lennon.

GROSS: I'm gonna play a track I particularly like from this, and it's -- it's the opening track. It's a duet with you and John Fogarty...

PERKINS: Yeah.

GROSS: ... who came to success with "Credence Clearwater."

PERKINS: Right.

GROSS: And this is "All Mama's Children." Would you say something about the song or recording it?

PERKINS: You know, I really like to have said the wrong thing. I was out in L.A. and John Fogarty came to the studio. We had preplanned this and everything. And I said: "what do you want to do, John? What song?" He said: "I want to do 'All Mama's Children' -- your old record." I said: "that's the sorriest song I ever wrote in my life, and I...

LAUGHTER

... I always detested that song. I just -- I think it's a piece of garbage." And he looked really hurt. He said: "are you kidding?" I said: "nah, that song ain't no good, man." He said: "it's the best Carl Perkins you ever had."

Well, I knew he -- he said it with sincerity so he meant it, so I backed off quick. I said: "well, it ain't that bad."

LAUGHTER

And I didn't want him to say: "if we don't do this one, I'm going home."

LAUGHTER

And we jumped in there. In a couple of takes, we had it. It was a -- it was a great delight making this album with people like John Fogarty. Tom Petty -- I did not know. I knew of him. He's a great artist. And here I am in Los Angeles having so much fun with these guys. All this adds up to, gosh, Terry, I gotta be one of the luckiest old rockabillies that's still around.

GROSS: Well, I'm glad you're still recording. I really enjoyed this. Thank you...

PERKINS: Thank you.

GROSS: ... so much for talking with us.

PERKINS: Oh, it's been a treat, girl. Any time, just holler. Carl Perkins will be on this end of the line. Thank you so very much.

GROSS: Carl Perkins, recorded in 1996. He died yesterday at the age of 65.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "ALL MAMA'S CHILDREN.")

JOHN FOGARTY, SINGER, SINGING:
There was an old woman that lived in a shoe
She had so many children she didn't know what to do
They was doing all right 'til she took 'em to town
The kids start picking up 'em and putting them down

All your children want to rock, Mama
All your children want to roll
They want to roll, want to rock, want to bop ditty pop
All your children want to rock

PERKINS, SINGING: We're not trying to live too fast
But we might as well try to live in class
Better move out when the rent comes due
'Cause we want to live in a blue suede shoe

All your children want to rock, Mama
All your children want to rock
We want to roll, want to rock
Want to bop til' we pop
All your children want to rock

Oh

FOGARTY, SINGING: Well, every night when it's quiet and still
You can hear it echo through the hills
Through a blue suede shoe on a mountain top
All mama's children are doing the bop

FOGARTY AND PERKINS, SINGING: All your children want to rock, Mama
All your children want to roll
We're gonna roll and rock
Gonna bop 'til we pop
All your children want to rock

Yeah

Well all your children want to rock, Mama
All your children want to roll
We want to roll, want to rock
Want to bop 'til we drop
All your children want to rock

GROSS: Carl Perkins and John Fogarty.

In order to bring you our interview with Carl Perkins today, we postponed our conversation between mystery writer P.D. James and FRESH AIR book critic Maureen Corrigan. We'll bring you that tomorrow.

Coming up, classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz plays some rare piano recordings that are now back in print.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Carl Perkins
High: Singer, songwriter and guitarist Carl Perkins died yesterday at the age of 65. He died of complications from a series of strokes. Perkins is the pioneer of a style of music called Rockabilly, which is described as "a country man's song with a black man's rhythm." He's the man who wrote "Blue Suede Shoes," the hit song sung by Elvis Presley which became the first Sun label record to sell over a million copies. Carl Perkins also wrote the songs, "Matchbox," "Honey Don't," and "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby" which have been recorded by the Beatles. Perkins, born in Tennessee, learned to play guitar from his uncle and formed a band with his two brothers before touring the South with Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. It was Cash who gave Perkins the idea for the song, "Blue Suede Shoes." In 1996 Perkins wrote his autobiography -- w/David McGee -- "Go, Cat, Go!"
Spec: Music Industry; History; Deaths; Carl Perkins
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Carl Perkins
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JANUARY 20, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 012002NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: George Copeland Release
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: A few months ago, classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz talked about a little-known American pianist named George Copeland who made few recordings. None of them were in print.

Now, the picture has changed. The British label Pearl has just released a 2-CD set of Copeland's complete "Victor" recordings from the 1930s, plus excerpts from his last live concert.

Here's Lloyd's review.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, PIANIST GEORGE COPELAND IN PERFORMANCE)

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, FRESH AIR CLASSICAL MUSIC CRITIC: Talk about serendipity. George Copeland was an American pianist whose rare recordings I'd loved for years. The person who triggered my recent piece about him on FRESH AIR was a friend who was curious if I'd ever heard of him.

Copeland had been a friend of his family. He'd even given my friend a few piano lessons. Then after the broadcast, I got a note from a listener in Memphis thanking me for explaining the mysterious figure on an old concert poster he'd found years ago at a garage sale. I also got a call from another friend, who knew someone who was working on a new George Copeland album.

That album has just been released. The liner notes on it by Charles Timbrough (ph) tell me more about Copeland than I'd ever known before. That for instance, he had toured with Isadora Duncan, accompanying her dancers and playing piano solos; that Copeland had played the world premier of two Debussy etudes; and that he was playing the first American performances of Debussy as early as 1905.

And who but Copeland would have insisted on placing the microphones under his piano to capture the particularly diaphanous quality of Debussy's prelude "Veils." Debussy once said to him: "it is not my habit to pay compliments, but I wish to say, Mr. Copeland, that I never thought to hear my music played as well as that in my lifetime."

This is the opening of Copeland's own insinuating transcription of Debussy's prelude to the "Afternoon of a Fawn."

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, PIANIST GEORGE COPELAND PERFORMING PRELUDE TO THE "AFTERNOON OF A FAWN" BY CLAUDE DEBUSSY)

Copeland's wealthy Boston father was opposed to his son's musical career, but his Spanish mother encouraged it, which helps explain Copeland's devotion to baroque and modern Spanish music. This generous new album includes the expected variety of French, Spanish, and Latin American composers, recorded in the 1930s. But there are also some happy surprises, such as this breathless Bach pas a pied (ph).

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, PIANIST GEORGE COPELAND PERFORMING COMPOSITION BY JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH)

I especially cherish the chance to hear Copeland perform live on never-previously issued recordings of a 1964 concert -- in fact, his very last at Yale when he was 82 years old. He died at 89. I had no idea these recordings existed.

He was still playing with his singular, instantly identifiable combination of delicacy and power. The exquisite touch, his trademark, teasing rhythms and captivating phrasing that critics were already praising before the turn of the century -- were all still there more than half a century later.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix. He reviewed a new 2-CD set of piano recordings by George Copeland on the Pearl label.

I'm Terry Gross.

Dateline: Lloyd Schwartz, Boston; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest:
High: Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new release of music by the little-known American pianist George Copeland. It's a 2-CD set of his complete Victor recordings from the 1930s on the Pearl label. They are the first of his work to be back in print.
Spec: Music Industry; Piano; George Copeland
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: George Copeland Release
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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