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Evergreen - - Contents - Bill Bax­ter

‘ 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.

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