Tuesday, December 15, 2009

December 15: Carl Perkins, "Dance Album"

Artist: Carl Perkins
Album: Dance Album
Year: 1957
Label: Sun Records

History has not been very kind of a handful of the earliest and most influential musicians in rock and roll's history. In many cases, artists with rock-style hits before Elvis are seen as "one hit wonders," and their overall importance to the development of music is often minimalized. Yet with a number of these artists, one can see that, without their presence, music simply would not have developed along the lines that it has over the past decades. Leading this pack of under-credited artists is the man responsible for some of the most important and well known songs ever written, as well as one of the key figures in early rock music: Carl Perkins. Before Presley, before Jerry Lee Lewis, and in many ways, before Johnny Cash, there was Carl Perkins. Along with these three, Perkins rounded out the powerhouse that made Sun Records famous, yet of the four, it is Perkins who is usually an afterthought. Over the years, Perkins wrote hits for everyone from Patsy Cline to Cash, and his own songs became hits for artists ranging from The Beatles to George Thorogood. With his brilliant rockabilly style, it is almost offensive when one sees how many "music critics" write Perkins off as just some "Elvis imitator," when not only did Perkins precede Presley, but Presley's first big hit was a Perkins song. Everything that makes Carl Perkins an absolute icon of rock music can be found on his first full length release, his seminal 1957 album, Dance Album.

At first glance, the track listing on Dance Album looks like a stellar group of covers of some of the greatest songs ever written. However, the truth of the matter is, from "Blue Suede Shoes" to "Matchbox," these are the ORIGINALS, the more well known versions are covers of Perkins' songs. In fact, when Presley famously performed "Blue Suede Shoes" on The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show, the song had already become Sun Records' first single to sell a million copies...the Perkins version, NOT the Presley cover. Furthermore, the songs that Perkins released after "Blue Suede Shoes" were almost all musically superior, yet due to the rapid rise to fame of Presley, Perkins and the sales of his music became more of an afterthought with each release. Yet, if one notes each song found on Dance Album, there are very few that have not been famously covered over the years, from The Beatles 1964 hit with "Matchbox" to T. Rex covering "Honey Don't," Ricky Nelson taking a pair of songs off this album for his own debut. Such widespread (both in terms of era and musical style) usage of his songs make it almost unfathomable that Perkins is still often seen as a "second tier" musician, yet when one listens to his recordings, it is clear that, though others may have made the rockabilly sound more famous, it was largely Perkins who played the mixture of styles first.

While at its core, the music of Carl Perkins is as simple as it gets, just Perkins and his guitar, there are a few other players along with him, as well as some rather interesting guest musicians throughout Dance Album. Since at the time of the recordings, Sun Records hadn't quite taken off as it would post-Presley, the artists on the label often helped one another and recorded on each others' sessions. This is why, the instant that "Matchbox" begins, anyone can easily spot the sound of Jerry Lee Lewis on the piano. The presence of Lewis gives the music of Perkins an entirely new sound, and the song is one of the closest to the sound that made Presley famous. Truth be told, "Matchbox" could have easily fit into the catalog of nearly any artist at the time, and along with the Beatles cover, it has been performed by countless artists since. It was also during the recording session for "Matchbox" that one of the most famous "jam sessions" in music history occurred. After the song was recorded, both Presley and Cash entered the studio, joining Perkins and Lewis, and the four spent more then an hour playing various gospel, rockabilly, and R&B songs. Though Cash left the session early, it was all captured on tape, and released in 1990 as The Million Dollar Quartet. Even when listening to this monumental recording, it is clear that not only does Perkins hold his own, but many times, he is by far the most dynamic and talented performer on the song.

After listening to Dance Album, it is almost frustrating to try and comprehend how Perkins was not as big of, if not bigger, a star than Presley. When one hears songs like "Honey Don't," the similarities between the two, in terms of both sound and style, are so clear that it almost doesn't make sense that one would become one of the biggest stars in history, and the other would be somewhat forgotten by the same history. Perkins' voice is far more wide-ranging in capability, as he can go far more country than Presley, yet far more rock than Cash. This ability is presented perfectly when one hears the differences in his sound on the country-based "Tennessee" and the pure rock and roll of "Boppin' The Blues." The latter of these two songs is one of the main reasons why the title of Dance Album is quite fitting, as many of the songs found on the record were sure to light up jukeboxes across the country. It is also on this song that one can hear the building blocks for the second wave of rock music, as the trademark "power-twang" that The Beatles used as the base for many of there hits can be found about one and a half minutes into this song. While countless artists used the style of feedback first recorded by Ike Turner, there is no question that it was this random, more powerful note that gave birth to the more modern style of rock music.

While one cannot picture music taking on its current form without artists like Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, it is equally impossible to believe it would have developed as it has without the pioneering efforts of Carl Perkins. Without question one of the finest and most important songwriters in the history of music, many of the earliest and most famous rock songs were in fact the products of Perkins' brilliant writing abilities. Furthermore, the tone and style that he brought to the developing rockabilly sound was easily as important as his more famous peers, and the fact that over the years, Perkins has been largely seen as a "secondary" artist is both tragic and factually wrong. The truth of the matter is, when Sun Records finally released Dance Album, it was largely more of a money making effort then anything else, as Perkins had already left the label, and it had been more than two years since "Blue Suede Shoes" was a hit. Furthermore, Sun Records did little to promote the album, but as time has passed, these smaller facts have been forgotten, and the album itself stands as one of the finest and most influential of all of the early full length rock and roll records. Truth be told, there is not a sub-par song anywhere on the album, and along with a handful of the most well known songs in music history, nearly every song has been covered over the years. Unquestionably one of the most important figures in the history of music, everything that makes the music of Carl Perkins so fantastic and so influential can be found on the brilliant 1957 release, Dance Album.

Standout tracks: "Blue Suede Shoes," "Movie Magg," and "Matchbox."

1 comment:

Jerry Katell said...

Thank you so much for this history. I am involved with the Million Dollar Quartet show that will be going to Broadway and this article had things I did not know.