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Carl Perkins
Illustration by Shawn Barber99/100

99. Carl Perkins

By Tom Petty 

Carl Perkins' songs will outlive us all. On tracks like "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Honey Don't!" he took that country-picking thing into the rock world. He was an amazing guitar player: If you want to play Fifties rock & roll, you can either play like Chuck Berry, or you can play like Carl Perkins.

Considering how important he is to rock history, many people don't know about him. But the right people did. The Beatles covered five of Carl's songs on record. Carl was actually there in the studio when the Beatles cut some of them. Listen to the guitar break in "All My Loving": George Harrison told me that the Beatles would study the B sides of Carl's records to learn everything they could from him.

Carl was the real deal — a true rockabilly cat. He told me about picking cotton when he was a kid and learning the blues from an older black field hand he knew. Carl would go home from the fields, be practicing a Roy Acuff country type of thing on his guitar, and then he would start bending the notes. He told me his father would actually get mad, saying, "Play that thing right, boy, or don't play it at all." But it was organic with Carl. He took it to the honky-tonks — the real honky-tonks where people would be drinking out of a jug. It sounds like a cliché now, that rock music was born out of cornfields and honky- tonks, but with Carl it was all true.

He didn't get the breaks he deserved; hard luck seemed to follow him around. He had a terrible car crash on the way to The Ed Sullivan Show when "Blue Suede Shoes" was breaking really big. Elvis ended up covering the song and took a lot of the glory there. Some people might not know that Carl played guitar with Johnny Cash for 10 years on the road. At a certain point in the Sixties, things got tough for Carl — he had a drinking problem, which he eventually overcame — and he went back into the lead-guitar business.

Carl himself was a very bright guy, and very funny. He once told me, "Tom, I like you so much — if I lived by you, I'd cut your grass." That warmth and wit came through in his music. He was not the kind of guy to blow his own horn; he was very humble. When we did a long stand at the Fillmore in the late Nineties, I talked Carl into sitting in with us. Backstage, Carl was very nervous about coming out with us. He said, "They may not know who I am." I told him, "Carl, they're going to know you and love you." When Carl hit the stage, he just ripped the room apart. Neil Young was there that night, and he was shaking his head. Carl was that good.

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