Friday, December 19, 2014

Carl Perkins: Original Sun Greatest Hits (1955-57)



Polite, gifted and grand, Carl Perkins personifies rockabilly despite never really approaching any ideas about rebellion or machismo typical of the music. His bravado and innovation were all musical: taught to play guitar while working as a sharecropper in Tennessee, he was steeped in the fusion of black and white musical traditions that resulted in the creation of rock & roll. He stood at the crossroads even before he was discovered by Sam Phillips and signed to the illustrious Sun Records roster. Today he is the least known of Sun's "class of '55," eclipsed by charismatic peers Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and -- inevitably -- Elvis Presley. Perkins was cruder, stranger looking, more hick than rocker. But in some ways Perkins is the quintessential white rock musician, marked by his freewheeling but respectful mutating of the idiom, and embodied on the records he made at Sun is the bare essence of the best rock & roll.

Perkins was blessed with a range and sensitivity that his Sun classmates didn't necessarily lack. Orbison's records for Monument would turn out to boil over with emotion, and certainly Presley and Cash would become known for their ways with a ballad. Despite his somewhat intimidating, formidable appearance, Perkins had none of Presley's ozzing sexuality, Lewis' frenetics or Cash's sense of darkness and menace. Instead he always seemed like a sort of normal guy who happened to be possessed of immense talent as a composer, singer and player. The pure musicianship of Perkins' best singles is enough to make one temporarily shirk the whole concept that attitude and image are integral to rock & roll; like the Everly Brothers during their Cadence period, he demonstrates the purity and wisdom of just laying down brilliant music expertly and consistently. It could be argued, indeed, that of all of the Sun artists, his recordings for the label have weathered the years most gracefully. Perhaps that's because the way in which he "comes off" is of no concern to him. He attempts neither to confront audiences nor to wipe himself clean of the unsavories. Like so many iconic cowboy heroes, he just is who he is.

That's why, when you hear "Blue Suede Shoes" now, it doesn't necessarily cross your mind to compare it to the bigger hit version recorded by Presley. What's striking about it rather is Perkins' straightforward confidence -- the song is a great dance number, brilliantly written, and he's aware of this without undue swagger. An immediate standard, the song was inspired by an altercation Perkins witnessed between a dancing couple, the alpha-male half getting into a hissy fit over his partner stepping on his shoes. The song as written has some of the quick, worldly wit of Chuck Berry but more generally exists as a folksy, energetic scold made tremendously entertaining (and audience-inclusive) by Perkins' conversational but mildly vicious vocal performance. Perkins' other early classic, "Movie Magg," is a less dryly cynical affair -- its engaging, sure-footed teen romancing put him on the map to begin with -- but "Blue Suede Shoes" has survived all these years because its elegance is so damned durable. Almost no song in the rock idiom is more immediately recognizable. So even if Perkins could do a lot more and did, it scarcely matters; "Blue Suede Shoes" would be plenty, and after all these decades it still gets the shoes moving.

It's not unusual, nevertheless, to meet a Perkins diehard who will have much more room in his or her heart for "Movie Magg," in which Perkins seems to be playing himself, not a character, and offers up a sheepish date-night giddiness that uncovers a charm absent from so many early white rockers whose prime motive was often to simply make a strong, typically dangerous impression. The scope of Perkins' influence over future awkward geeks and other non-handsome misfits is tough to quantify; along with Buddy Holly, he virtually created one of the archetypes of rock & roll to come -- the gawking dork with hidden talents. These days you probably know several of Perkins' classics -- namely "Honey Don't," "Matchbox" and "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby" -- because they were memorably covered by the Beatles, who were crazy about the guy's records. (Particularly adoring fan George Harrison would later become a lifelong friend of Perkins.) In all three cases, the band handed off the vocal duties to one of the two lesser singers in the band, lending them an agreeable modesty that fits perfectly with the man's own image. It's also perhaps not a coincidence that these are among the very few covers recorded by the Beatles that don't improve on their original counterparts -- Perkins has too great a command of his voice and playing for George and Ringo to compare. Though a fine lyricist, he gives his words their meaning and sense of irony (especially on "...Be My Baby") with gulping, chattering pensiveness that probably just represents his real, low-key personality shining through.

Low-key doesn't mean unenthusiastic, of course, and at times Perkins fits the rockabilly mold set forth by the likes of Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent (and to a lesser extent, Elvis himself); typically literate and relfective, he can at times be downright furious and primal. The (deservedly) most famous example is the outrageous "Put Your Cat Clothes On," in my opinion an even stronger rock & roll track than "Blue Suede Shoes," most easily comparable to relentless attacks from this period like Vincent's "Blue Jean Bop" and Jerry Lee Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." Nothing on "Cat Clothes" is designed to make sense beyond its devotion to adolescent, inarticulate escape, and Perkins proves himself just as capable of encouraging such misbehavior as the most rambunctious of his peers. His howling and hooting don't seem like an improbable stretch, just a monster he waits to let out until just the right moment. "Boppin' the Blues" also examines the harder side of Perkins' art, and "Glad All Over" reveals the virile sexuality bubbling under the surface in his cooing, flirty, impressively elastic vocal. It isn't that, on an expertly crafted cut like that, he does anything that other titans couldn't do just as well; rather, the specific range of Perkins' gifts is almost something he alone demonstrates. Buddy Holly could record a "Glad All Over" but he doesn't have a "Put Your Cat Clothes On" or a "Sure to Fall." Ditto Eddie Cochran in the other direction, and numerous permutations besides.

Perkins' most immediately obvious virtue is his multifaceted singing voice, but a lot of what makes him so singular is found in his legendarily breakneck guitar playing. More technically polished than Vincent and the other rockabilly gods, but more lyrical and felt than Presley, he is properly remembered as an innovator of his day in a field with Chuck Berry and the "5" Royales' Lowman Pauling. Listen to Perkins' solo on "Sure to Fall" and you can hear what drove Lou Reed to learn to play the way he played. Listen to almost any of his other solos and you'll hear George Harrison's style being predicated almost note for note -- "All My Loving" and the Beatles' unreleased cover of "Leave My Kitten Alone" are handy examples. More importantly, however, Perkins like Berry explores the sonic possibilities of the electric guitar within the boundaries of what will make his individual songs stronger. His guitar work seldom calls attention to itself but is never boring or even merely serviceable; without fail, it hits the moment perfectly during every cut that's included on this disc.

The Beatles had more Perkins covers in their live repertoire than they ever recorded. Versions of "Lend Me Your Comb" and "Sure to Fall" exist in professionally recorded tapes from BBC performances, and while their folky, intricate take on the former is outstanding, their "Sure to Fall" is rather flat specifically because it reveals the absolute brilliance of Perkins as a singer. In the Beatles' arrangement, the verses of the song are harmonized and the middle-eight is handed off for a rather sugary interlude from Paul McCartney alone. That's not extremely different from what the original record does, but the separation of emotive qualities makes a lot of difference -- Perkins' range on the track is remarkable. In fact "Sure to Fall" is, to my mind, Perkins' finest moment on record; it is a legendary showcase for his fast-picking, layered guitar playing but that's couched in an emotionally aching, genuinely lovely song. Orbison was, of course, the greatest singer of the '55 class, but that moment in the bridge when Perkins' voice breaks and rises on "let tonight beeee the night" is some kind of heartfelt peak of the Sun era. It's also just barely rock & roll -- the song is just shy of being pure country, and is all the better for its appropriation of the Ozarks with the bump and grind of black music. The song is Perkins at his purest. "Your True Love" (pure pop joy) and the impressively complex "Lend Me Your Comb" (all sex and resignation) are Perkins at his busiest, and no less pleasurable or engaging. In fact, these are his three strongest (if hardly his most famous) Sun recordings -- and therefore his best work.

It's feasible for a person to be a massive Perkins devotee and barely know much of anything besides the material he made at Sun. It's even feasible to admire him deeply while only being familiar with the sixteen songs on this disc, which is miraculous and consistent enough to make a complete case for him. Lots of artists recorded all of their best work for one label despite jumping off many times -- Little Richard on Specialty being one famous example -- but the classic Sun crew all went on to extremely illustrious careers outside of the focal point of their discovery. Purists be damned, Elvis recorded some extraordinary music at RCA and anyone who says otherwise is full of shit. Roy Orbison's Monument work eclipses his Sun output to the point of absurdity. A case could be made that Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis were never more vital than on Sun, but serious fans and scholars of country music would likely debate you -- and anyway Lewis' definitive statements were on stage, not on record. Perkins alone among these titans laid down his absolute essence on tape during his Sun tenure, and never bettered it or even really attempted to come close. He was never destined to embarrass himself as a performer but the truth is that by the close of the '50s, he had done enough to secure his place in the pantheon as a vital and brilliant artist.

Of course, if that haunting little hiccup in "Sure to Fall" or that bashful faux-swagger in "Blue Suede Shoes" are intriguing to you, you may go seeking more and you will likely find buried treasure. But you'll never stop coming back to these Sun singles, and never stop finding the kind of elegant, subtle thrills in them that rock & roll at its best ought to provide. Though his records require no context of "influence," it deserves to be pointed out: Perkins was one of the truly underappreciated architects of rock & roll, and all that's required to understand that is to hear these songs; this stirring 38-minute document is one of the cornerstone items in any good rock collection, but more to the point, it's one of the most surprising and delightful.

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