Just about everyone in Jackson, Tennessee, who came of age in the early 1950s knew Carl Perkins.
And just about all those folks have a Carl Perkins story to tell. Their stories have one common theme; that theme being no one in Carl’s home town of Jackson, Tennessee, will ever describe Carl as a rock star or a celebrity, but only as one of the nicest people they ever met.
I asked Grandmother Opal once if she knew Carl. She rolled her eyes, waved the air with an open palm and said, “Lord, yes. I knew Carl Perkins. He and Valda lived in the same house on Country Club Lane for as long as I can remember,” as if they were life-long neighbors. Actually Opal and Carl are buried in the same cemetery on Ridgecrest Road in Jackson.
My Uncle knew Carl, too. Uncle Puz (the congregation mostly knew him as Frank I. Madden) was pastor at Bemis United Methodist Church from 1976-1980, and Carl was known to frequent the little church in the cotton gin company town a Sunday or two every couple of months. I suppose my uncle’s journey to seminary via the finest in hell raising Dixiecrat upbringings sprinkled liberally with a view of the world from the Plexiglas tail of a B-24 Liberator over Germany in 1945 helped to bring poetic tinge to his sermons that Carl so enjoyed.
Uncle Puz was kind enough to introduce me quickly to Mr. Perkins after a Sunday service one forgotten summer in 1976 and it never occurred to me at the time that had grasped the country boy’s hand who, with a herringbone plaid two piece, some wingtips, a ’55 Les Paul gold top, and three simple, electrified chords, changed the face of Rock and Roll.
Many, many years later, I attended an outdoor concert in tandem with Cruisin’ The Coast at Bert Jones Park in Gulfport, Mississippi. Carl happened to be a feature, thanks to all the hot rods and so forth that will forever more associate with greasy rockabilly. After the show, I excused myself from my date for a moment and eased my way towards Carl’s tour bus. I discovered an open chain link fence and gently knocked on the door of the Silver Eagle. Carl’s son, Stan, met me and inquired as to my business. I asked him sheepishly to please tell Mr Perkins that Puz Madden’s nephew said hello and that I certainly enjoyed the show.
Next thing I knew I was in the back of the Eagle having a personal audience with Carl and it was as if he had known me all my life. We talked about Bemis and my minister uncle and other landmarks around the Jackson area for what seemed like an hour. I suppose it was only about 20 minutes or so and Carl was strongly palming my shoulder, smiling and appreciative of the visit, and politely escorting me to the exit.
As I walked across the emptying fair grounds, it was hard to believe that this humble, unassuming, kind man with the syrupy country drawl was the same guitar picker that rocketed to gold record stardom in the 1950s, collaborated with the Beatles, Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash, and influenced two or more generations of aspiring players. He seemed just a gentle soul from West Tennessee that had a good word for everyone that crossed his path.
I am not quite sure why the ghost of Carl Perkins is stuck in my head tonight, but I have spent the last three and a half hours watching, listening to, and reading the scraps of Carl’s history I have in my collection as well as the few things that exist online.
One thing is for sure. Carl’s pat on the back came too late as he drifted in and out of the long shadow cast by Elvis and Jerry Lee and the others and we lost him entirely too soon. Thank goodness that his mark on music is strong enough that players far and wide finally understand exactly who was responsible for the birth of modern American rock music on a beer-soaked stage at a place call The Hilltop Club on a cold December night in 1955.