Juke Box .
Presented by Evergreen’s very own disc jockey,
‘ Blue Suede Shoes’
Bill “The Beat” Baxter
As the stories behind the hit records described in this series have shown, the ideas for songs can come to writers and musicians at any time and in any place. When 23- year- old American singer- songwriter Carl Perkins was booked to play at a dance in Jackson, Tennessee, in December 1955, the sort of event he and his two brothers in the band had played at dozens of times before, he couldn’t have imagined that a chance remark he overheard would inspire him to write a song that has become one of the classics of rock and roll. Today, that song — “Blue Suede Shoes” — is as recognisable as a children’s nursery rhyme and, alongside “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Johnny B. Goode”, “All Shook Up” and “Long Tall Sally”, remains one of the all- time greats.
Born in Tennessee in 1932, the son of sharecroppers, Carl’s early life was one of grinding poverty, and when not at school he and his brothers Jay and Clayton would spend hours toiling in the fields — 12 to 14 hours a day during the summer.
Music, with the pictures it painted of other lives, the emotions it stirred and the way in which it could raise spirits even when everything seemed hopeless, provided a great escape. For Carl, this was gospel music in the church on Sundays, haunting work songs by the pickers in the cotton fields, and the greatest treat of all: songs from the Grand Ole Opry, the legendary country music show from Nashville which the family listened to on the radio on Saturday nights.
Keen to emulate the performers he heard, Carl asked his parents
for a guitar. They were unable to afford such an extravagance, but Mr. Perkins made his son one: from a cigar box and a broomstick! This didn’t deter Carl, and in due course his father did scrape together a couple of dollars to buy a battered old instrument from a neighbour.
Carl was soon learning the songs he heard, and by the time he was 14 was writing his own and performing with his brothers in local bars. One of their favourite numbers was Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky”. As they became well known in the area, a few radio dates aired their music to a wider audience, although all the while Carl was combining evening shows with a series of day jobs.
In 1953 Carl married his childhood sweetheart, Valda Crider, who persuaded her husband to become a full- time musician. And when they tuned in one day and heard a new version of the Bill Monroe song performed by an up- and- coming singer called Elvis Presley, she it was who urged Carl to go to Memphis where Presley and his producer, Sam Phillips of Sun Records, were based.
After an audition with Phillips, two of Perkins’ songs, “Let Me Take You to the Movie, Magg” and “Turn Around” were released as a single in March 1955. Perkins and his brothers ( now with the addition of “Fluke” Holland on drums) embarked on a successful theatre tour with Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash and the
Tennessee Two. Carl later commented on the Presley phenomenon: “When I’d jump around they’d scream some, but they were gettin’ ready for him. It was like TNT, man, it just exploded. All of a sudden the world was wrapped up in rock.”
And so to that night on stage in Jackson. As the group played and the couples danced, Carl heard a young man say to his girlfriend: “Don’t step on my suedes!” Surprised that the man should be more concerned with his footwear than the feelings of his pretty companion, Carl looked down and saw that they were blue suede shoes. In the early hours of the next morning, unable to sleep, Carl got up and, clutching his guitar, began writing the song, scribbling the words down on an old brown potato sack: Well, it’s one for the money, Two for the show, Three to get ready, Now go, man, go… At the suggestion of Sam Phillips the fourth line was subsequently changed to “go, cat, go” and “Blue Suede Shoes” ( backed by “Honey Don’t”) was released as a single on 1st January 1956.
The record’s success was astonishing and during one period during the following weeks the sales amounted to 20,000 copies per day. Not only that, but it climbed the US charts for three different categories of music: blues, country and pop. This was unheard of at the time, and perhaps it was those different elements coming together in “Blue Suede Shoes” that, like alchemy, actually created rock and roll. The record reached number 10 in the United Kingdom.
By this time, Elvis Presley had joined RCA, but so as not to spoil Carl’s success deliberately delayed releasing his own version of the song.
Since then, “Blue Suede Shoes” has been covered by countless artists and included on numerous lists of the most influential songs of all time. Perhaps the importance of the song, and of Carl Perkins, was best encapsulated in October 1985 when George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton and Dave Edmunds joined Carl Perkins on stage for Suede Shoes: A Rockabilly Session at the Limehouse Studios in London. The concert finished with a rousing version of the signature song.
Carl Perkins died in 1998, but as long as rock and roll is performed, “Blue Suede Shoes” will be top of every singer’s play list. Now go, cat, go!
One of the godfathers of rock and roll: Carl Perkins.