Friday, July 8, 2011

July 8: Carl Perkins, "Blue Suede Shoes"

Artist: Carl Perkins
Song: "Blue Suede Shoes"
Album: Blue Suede Shoes (single)
Year: 1956

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

The saying goes that "history is written by the victors," and while usually applied to the history of the world, it can easily be used in as relevant a context within the world of music.  That is to say, in countless situations, the true inventors of a sound or style are left behind the shadow of an artist or band that made the sound commercially successful.  Though many "music revisionists" might try and argue, the fact of the matter is, few artists played a more vital role in the development of rockabilly and rock and roll than Carl Perkins, but he is rarely given the complete credit that he deserves for his contributions.  As a contemporary of names like Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley at Sun Records, Perkins was the voice and pen behind many of the biggest hits in both early rock as well as country, yet many see him as little more than a "one hit wonder"  Whether he was writing massive hits for Patsy Cline, The Judds, or Cash and Presley, Carl Perkins clearly had a talent and understanding for music that was far beyond that of any of his peers.  However, for whatever reason, he never found the same commercial success as others, and yet many of his songs have become so ingrained in world culture that it is truly impossible to think of a time when they did not exist.  Though it is perhaps best known for a later cover version, there are few songs more synonymous with early rock and roll and the its true spirit than what one can experience on Carl Perkins' 1956 single, "Blue Suede Shoes."

Though many can make their own case, there may be no other song in history that is as instantly recognizable as the opening of "Blue Suede Shoes."  The swaying, stuttered guitar cadence that kicks off the song is the very essence of the rockabilly style, and within the opening verse, there are clearly traces of country and blues which are perfectly fused together, setting the blueprint for almost every rock-style recording that followed.  The way that Perkins' guitar brings a brilliantly funky feel to the song makes it quite understandable why "Blue Suede Shoes" quickly rose to the top of the charts after first being championed by Cleveland, OH DJ Bill Randle.  The song was able to find success on both the country and  r&b charts, becoming the first country-style song to crack the top five on the other chart.  The Perkins original version "Blue Suede Shoes" is noticeably slower in tempo than later covers, but this difference allows the r&b roots of the song to become far more clear.  Mid-way through the song, Perkins breaks off into a solo, and the soul and swagger that he puts forth through his playing would go on to influence almost every guitarist since, as it is the presence he brings that sets it so far apart from other guitar recordings of the time.  Taking the entire musical element as a single piece, it is amazing to hear how Carl Perkins is able to inject an uncanny amount of energy into "Blue Suede Shoes" whilst staying firmly planted in a slower, more concentrated tempo.

Along with the unmistakable musical arrangement, the opening lines on "Blue Suede Shoes" are equally as iconic, and it is easy to understand the historical significance when Carl Perkins sings, "...well it's one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready now go cat go..."  Much like his peers, Perkins has a a clear, powerful voice, and yet much like the music, it is the purposeful pauses in his delivery that enable the tension to build during the verses.  When one compares Perkins' performance on "Blue Suede Shoes" to other recordings of the day, it is clear that there are moments here that would have been considered "out of control," as he can be heard giving into the spirit of the song, at times approaching the point of shouting.  It is this captivating, invigorating feel to the song that was able to light up dance halls across the country, and even more than half a century after its initial release, the appeal is still as strong as ever.  Lyrically, some might think "Blue Suede Shoes" to be a bit nonsensical, but as legend tells, the words were inspired by a real-life incident at a dance hall in December of 1955.  As the tale goes, Perkins was watching a couple dance, and in between songs, the man said to his dancing partner something to the effect of, "Hey! Don't step on my suedes!"  Perkins was rather shocked that the man could think of such things when dancing with a beautiful girl, and later that night, the song "wrote itself," and he recorded it just two weeks later.

Carl Perkins' recording was released on January 1, 1956, and within that single calendar year, more than a dozen covers of the song were recorded and put on the market.  Yet even with all of these competitors performing the same song, Perkins' original version managed to best them all in terms of sales and chart performance, and to this day, it is his recording that remains the definitive take on the song.  Furthermore, the song itself, whether in name or simply phrases from the song have been used all across the musical spectrum, and references can be found in artists ranging from Chuck Berry to Beastie Boys.  While Elvis Presley would have his own hit with "Blue Suede Shoes," in many ways he overlooks the soul and drive of the song, speeding it up to a point where it becomes more about showmanship than the music itself.  This is why so many continue to turn to the Perkins original as the "true" source of the developing rock and roll style.  It is the understanding of the importance of where NOT to play that separates Carl Perkins from his peers, as in the case of "Blue Suede Shoes," it is in those moments of silence where the excitement of the recording are able to build.  Though it has been somewhat overshadowed by other artists that were rising at the same time, due to his exceptional talents as both a writer and musician, one cannot overstate the importance of Carl Perkins, and there may be no other song in the entire history of rock and roll that is as critical as his 1956 single, "Blue Suede Shoes."

No comments: