Carl Perkins was a rock-and-roll musician from Tennessee who was active in the United States from the 1950s to the mid-1990s. This lesson gives an overview of his biography, his musical style, and some of his most popular songs.

The First King of Rock

Carl Perkins at the beginning of his career
A picture of Carl Perkins at the beginning of his career

You many have heard about Elvis Presley, the famous rock-and-roll musician who became a superstar in the USA during the 1950s. One of the most famous songs Elvis ever sang, one which helped launch his career, was ‘Blue Suede Shoes.’ You might be surprised to learn, however, that Elvis did not write that song; that song was written by Carl Perkins. Not only that, but Perkins performed the song during the same time period that Elvis was performing it and had a fair amount of success with it as well.

Perkins, who was born in Tiptonville, Tennessee, in 1932 and died in 1998 in Nashville, Tennessee, was one of the first rock-and-roll musicians to reach national notoriety. Sometimes called ‘the first king of rock,’ he was a major influence on the Beatles, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan. His music represents the early days of rock and roll when experimental combinations of elements from blues and country music were being fused into what became rockabilly (the first form of rock and roll, which became popular in America during the 1950s) and later rock and roll. Beginning in 1955, Perkins released records on the Sun Records label, which was also the recording company that recorded Elvis’s first albums.

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A copy of Honey Dont by Perkins, as recorded on the Sun label
A picture of a copy of Perkins Honey Dont recorded on the Sun label

Hospitalization

Just as Perkins was reaching superstar status in 1956, he was injured in a car accident while on his way to New York City to perform on The Perry Como Show and on The Ed Sullivan Show. The month it took him to recover may have negatively impacted his career, as Elvis’s popularity began to surpass his after the accident, but in any case he retained an important position in the rock, country, and rockabilly communities as a song writer for other musicians and as a performer himself.

Columbia Records and Later Career

In 1958, Perkins began working with and releasing music on the Columbia Records label but never had a major hit on that label. He continued to tour and write throughout the 1960s and 1970s. From 1967 through 1975, Perkins collaborated with Johnny Cash on tours, recordings, and on The Johnny Cash Show. In 1985, he appeared in a TV special, ‘Blue Suede Shoes: A Rockabilly Session,’ which featured Perkins on stage with George Harrison and Ringo Starr from the Beatles and Eric Clapton, among others.

Perkins continued to record and perform in the years before his death. His discography includes 44 albums, more than 80 singles and extended play (EP; a recording that is too short to be classified as an album but includes more than one track) recordings, and 94 compilation albums. He also published an autobiography in 1995 titled, Go, Cat, Go!. Some of his most famous songs include: ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ ‘Movie Magg,’ ‘Matchbox,’ and ‘Boppin’ the Blues.’ Unlike some musicians who go through a series of stylistic changes throughout their career, Perkins practiced the same essential musical style and performed even his earliest songs consistently from the beginning to the end of his career.

Lesson Summary

As one of the first popular rock-and-roll musicians in the USA, Carl Perkins not only helped to legitimize and popularize the genre, but he also had a significant influence on some of the most important popular musicians of the 20th century, including the Beatles, Eric Clapton, and Bob Dylan. He was a pioneer of rockabilly music (the earliest form of rock and roll) and might have been more popular than Elvis if he had not been involved in a car accident just when he was becoming a superstar. Not only is his discography extensive, including popular songs like ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ ‘Matchbox,’ and ‘Boppin’ the Blues,’ but he even wrote an autobiography, Go, Cat, Go! shortly before his death in 1998.