Carl Perkins may be the least famous of the Million Dollar Quartet who turned up to record at Sun Studio on the same day as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.
But he’s a legend in rockabilly circles. “If there were no Carl Perkins, there would be no Beatles,” said one of his admirers – Paul McCartney.
There might have been no Elvis either, since Perkins had perfected that sound while Presley was still in diapers.
Perkins had been playing his fusion of country and blues since he was 14 years old, developing the shuffling boogie that would come to be called rockabilly as far back as the mid-1940s.
He earned the title The King Of Rockabilly by writing – and singing – Blue Suede Shoes, the first million-seller for Sam Phillips at Sun Studio, before Elvis made it an even bigger hit.
Carl wrote his first single, released in early 1955, when he was just 13. Movie Magg is a song about his weekend trips to the cinema with his girlfriend Maggie, riding together on the back of a mule because his family could not afford a car.
It was an authentic tale. Perkins grew up in family of poor sharecroppers in Tennessee, picking cotton from the age of six, and picking up his musical education from black field workers and gospel singers in church. His father fashioned his first guitar from a cigar box and a broomstick.
In late 1954 he travelled to Memphis to audition for Sam Phillips after hearing Elvis sing the bluegrass song Blue Moon Of Kentucky on the radio, and realising he was not alone.
This was the first song he recorded at Sun Studio with his band of brothers – Carl on lead guitar, Jay on rhythm and Clayton on upright bass – plus drummer W.S. ‘Fluke’ Holland, brought in by Phillips to complete the group (just as he had done with Presley, adding D.J. Fontana).
Phillips released it on his more country-oriented subsidiary of Sun called Flip Records in order to avoid direct competition with his biggest star from a musician with a similar style.
But when Elvis signed with RCA later that year, Phillips brought Perkins back into the fold to focus less on his country side and more on rockabilly – a decision that yielded immediate fruit in 1956 with Blue Suede Shoes.