Picture the scene: It’s late 1955, and Elvis Presley is onstage wowing the small crowd in Amory, Mississippi. He’s been on tour with Johnny Cash, but this night is special because another Sun Records artist, Carl Perkins, is also on the bill.
Cash and Perkins, both in their early 20s, their hair slicked and quiffed and looking cooly handsome are backstage hanging out, chatting about songwriting, when Cash tells Perkins a little story that will change rock ‘n’ roll history.
The country legend years later described just what he said to Perkins:
“I was in the Air Force in Germany, and I had a black friend named C.V. White from Virginia. He’d get dressed up for a three-day pass, and in his mind, when he put on his clothes to go out, his black shoes were blue suede shoes.
“He would say, ‘Man! Don’t step on my blue suede shoes; I’m goin’ out tonight.’ Carl Perkins and I were in Amory, Mississippi, with Elvis. Now Elvis, of course, was hotter than a pistol… and Carl hadn’t had a hit. He’d had two country records.
“He asked me to write a song with him. I said, ‘You take this idea, and write it yourself.’ This ‘blue suede shoes’ line that my buddy used to say had been in my mind ever since I went to Sun. I told Carl about it, and he said, ‘That’s the one I’m looking for,’ and he wrote it that night. He started it backstage, but he went home and finished it.”
Perkins himself recalled things a little differently. In his 1996 autobiography, Go, Cat, Go!, he claims he was unconvinced by the idea, telling Cash, “I don’t know nothin’ about them shoes.”
But just days after Cash told him the story, Perkins was onstage playing a dance in Jackson and heard a kid dancing at the front of the stage warning his girlfriend, “Don’t step on my suedes!” The idea resurfaced in Perkins’ mind and, later that night, inspired by this incident, he sat down and wrote “Blue Suede Shoes.”
Perkins was only 23 when he wrote what would become one of the most important rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time, but already he had come far from his impoverished start.
Born in April 1932 in Tiptonville, Tennessee, to share-croppers, it was while working the fields as a child that he heard the workers singing the gospel songs that gave him his love of music. That, along with the country music he heard on the radio, influenced him to learn guitar, taught by an older African-American bluesman, “Uncle” John Westbrook. At a young age, Perkins already had gospel, country, and blues in his life, and all would prove a major influence on his later music.
He began writing songs at 14 while working during the day at a dairy. At night, he and his older brother, Jay, began playing in honky-tonks and taverns, with his younger brother Lloyd later joining the group on bass.
Eventually, Perkins was able to give up his day job and become a full-time musician, but it wasn’t until 1954 when he heard Elvis on the radio singing a song the Perkins brothers had also been performing — Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” — that he was inspired to travel to Memphis where he successfully auditioned for Sam Phillips and became a part of the Sun Records roster along with Johnny Cash and, of course, Elvis himself.
Perkins had a few minor hits, but everything changed that fateful night on December 17, 1955, when he wrote “Blue Suede Shoes.” After writing the lyrics on a brown paper bag, he went into the studio just two days later and recorded it in two takes.
Phillips, at the helm, wouldn’t let Perkins record any more, telling him, “Do you hear that? You burnt it! We’re not changing anything; this record’s a smash!”
They also didn’t wait to release it: The vinyl hit shop shelves on January 1, 1956, backed with “Honey Don’t” (a song the Beatles would later cover). It took a couple of months for the track to catch on, but by March 3, it had entered the Billboard Charts and quickly gained momentum, becoming one of rock ‘n’ roll’s first big crossover hits topping the country charts and making it to #2 on both the R&B and pop charts. (There, it was held off by Elvis’ first hit for RCA, “Heartbreak Hotel,” proving once again all roads lead back to Elvis.)
“Blue Suede Shoes” not only defied genres, it also tapped into the rise of youth culture in the 1950s: the new wave of teenagers looking for their own fashion and music in the post-war years. The lyrics, “You can do anything, but lay off of my blue suede shoes” may well have been poking fun at that self-obsessed kid at the dance, but it was probably true that looking cool was at the center of a lot of teens’ lives (just as it is today).
While obviously humorous, the rebellious lyrics that put a pair of swish shoes over stolen cars, slander, and even liquor, were still undeniably appealing to the new generation of rock ‘n’ roll-loving kids. Plus, imagine in 1956, turning on the radio and hearing those opening lines, “Well, it’s one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, now go, cat, go” followed by those distinctive guitar strums and, even then, it must have been clear that this song was a game-changer.
Not surprisingly, with its success, Perkins was suddenly in huge demand, and he was booked to make his big TV debut on The Perry Como Show. Unfortunately, while driving to New York to appear on the show, Perkins and his band were involved in a terrible car accident, which left him and his brother Jay with serious injuries. (Jay would tragically die a few years later in 1959 of a brain tumor.)
The band did eventually make it onto the show months later, but there’s no doubt that, by taking Perkins out of the limelight and leaving him unable to promote his hit single just as it was gaining momentum, the accident hampered the song’s success. That said, it still managed to spend 21 weeks on the charts and, by April, Sam Phillips rewarded him with a new Cadillac for being the first Sun Records artist to sell over a million copies.
Meanwhile, Elvis had also recorded his own more upbeat version of “Blue Suede Shoes” (leaving out the pauses in the intro) just weeks after Perkins’ record was released. It became the first track on his classic self-titled debut album, released in March 1956. He held off releasing it as a single, however, until September of that year due to his friendship with Perkins, waiting until the original had peaked in the charts.
Surprisingly, given its fame today, at the time, Elvis’ version only managed to reach #20 on the pop charts. Elvis did sing “Blue Suede Shoes” on TV three times that year, though, including a fantastic, raucous version on The Milton Berle Show, and it became a staple of his stage shows. He also re-recorded the song for the soundtrack of his 1960 film, G.I. Blues. All of which helped put the Elvis version at the forefront of the public’s consciousness and, to this day, many people associate it only with Elvis.
After the success of “Blue Suede Shoes,” Perkins turned down offers from other labels and went back to Sun to record many great rockabilly favorites such as “Boppin’ the Blues,” “Dixie Fried,” and “Matchbox” but never managed to have another big pop hit.
He still had many more legendary moments though. On the day he recorded “Matchbox,” Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash visited him in the studio, and the infamous “Million Dollar Quartet” session was born.
Then, in 1964, while touring in the UK with Chuck Berry, the Beatles invited Perkins to a recording session at Abbey Road. George Harrison, in particular, was a huge fan; Perkins’ 1958 debut LP Dance Album of Carl Perkins was a huge influence on the young guitarist. But the whole band was excited to meet him, so excited they decided to record some of his songs that day, including “Matchbox,” “Honey Don’t,” and “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby,” as well as (according to Perkins) a cover of “Blue Suede Shoes” that has never been released. He remained friends with the whole band, and Paul McCartney later asked Perkins to duet with him on the track “Get It” from his 1982 album Tug Of War.
Funnily enough, Perkins himself never owned a pair of blue suede shoes, but Elvis did have a pair specially made for himself in 1956 after his version of the song shot up the charts. Elvis wore them regularly onstage for a few years. When he returned home after his service in the Army, he kindly gifted the shoes to his road manager, Joe Esposito. Decades later, they ended up in a Las Vegas Elvis museum until, in 2013, the blue brogues sold for an incredible $76,800 at auction. With shoes as expensive as that, you certainly wouldn’t want anyone stepping on them!
As for Perkins, despite pretty much saving Sun Records after Elvis left for RCA, he had to sue Sam Phillips in the 1970s after belatedly discovering that he had cheated him on the royalties for “Blue Suede Shoes” as well as his many other songs. Thankfully, the case was eventually settled, and Perkins was finally and rightfully given control of his own songs, including his most enduring hit.
Johnny Cash remained a faithful friend for years after, recording Perkins’ song “Daddy Sang Bass” in 1968 and taking him on the road with him for over a decade. (Perkins was the opening act for Cash’s legendary Folsom Prison and San Quentin shows.)
During the ‘80s and ‘90s, though, Perkins began getting the recognition he deserved for his contribution to rock music. In 1986, a televised concert featuring George Harrison (in his first public performance in over 10 years), Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Dave Edmunds, and of course, Carl Perkins himself celebrated the 30th anniversary of “Blue Suede Shoes.”
The same year, the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 1987, Perkins was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He continued to record and perform live, continuing the tradition of playing with his family when his sons Greg and Stan joined his band. Sadly, Perkins battled ill health for much of his final years and died of cancer in 1998, aged just 65 years old.
Of course, Carl Perkins was far more than his most famous song, but its influence and power is undeniable. Without “Blue Suede Shoes” and its phenomenal success, the history of rock ‘n’ roll may well have been very different. Now, go, cat, go!