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Go, Cat, Go! The Life and Times of Carl Perkins, the King of Rockabilly
Carl Perkins could be considered the Brian Eno of the late ’50s. Perkins’ sole commercial success lay in one song, “Blue Suede Shoes” (which he wrote after he and Johnny Cash witnessed a couple’s quarrel over scuffed footwear). But lesser-known songs in his repertoire influenced seminal rock and country musicians. Perkins attracted the reverence not only of local rockabilly bands but of giants like guitarist Marty Stuart. Even the Beatles cited Perkins as an inspiration, covering his “Honey Don’t,” “Matchbox,” and “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby.”
Perkins, born in 1932 and famous since ’56, has now collaborated with New York journalist David McGee to produce Go, Cat, Go! The Life and Times of Carl Perkins, the King of Rockabilly. His “autobiography,” though, reads more like an as-told-to biography. Most of the book is written in the third person, with intermittent commentaries in “The Voice of Carl Perkins.” This results in a disjointed narrative—but no one reads a rock bio expecting literary greatness.
Go, Cat, Go! chronicles Perkins’ classic country-boy-makes-good rise to stardom. He was born into a family of poor sharecroppers, learned the guitar at age 6 with the help of a neighboring black farmer, formed a band with his brothers Jay and Clayton, and honed his skills at honky-tonks. The authors don’t flinch at Perkins’ down-home naiveté, exemplified in a passage about his encountering “Blue Suede Shoes” in the new 45-rpm format as opposed to the usual 78: “Carl smiled and pushed the record back at Towater. ‘No sir…that ain’t my record. See, my record’s a great big one with a little bitty hole in it.’” Later, Perkins describes the amazing 45 to his wife, Valda: “It ain’t as big as a saucer, and it’s all hole!”
Now that’s the sort of material that people want from a rock bio. Go, Cat, Go! offers plenty of anecdotes, as well as Perkins’ perspective on the transformation of rock ’n’ roll from rebel music to teen-idol crooning. But the details that make Perkins’ story most compelling concern his unique associations with Cash, Elvis, and Roy Orbison.
While the ballad of Sun Records and the Memphis scene has been recited ad infinitum by music historians, that doesn’t stop Perkins and McGee from giving it another run-through. The mid-’50s period covers only a small part of Perkins’ story but takes up a large portion of his book. After Elvis left for RCA, Perkins attained the status of one of Sun Records’ showpieces; he played gigs for a respectable $1,000 a night, and received a Cadillac from Sun owner Sam Phillips for having the label’s first million-selling single.
But after “Blue Suede Shoes,” songs like “Dixie Fried” failed to ignite public interest, and Perkins was overshadowed by such contemporaries as Jerry Lee Lewis. In hard-luck country-blues style, Perkins’ misfortunes multiplied. An automobile accident sidelined his band just as “Blue Suede Shoes” was sweeping the nation, Jay Perkins died suddenly from a brain tumor in 1958, and Carl battled whiskey from the ’50s through 1968 (with a slight relapse, blamed on “a taste for screwdrivers,” in the ’70s). Go, Cat, Go! bravely balances the woe with the fading glow of fame provided by Perkins’ Vegas act and his acquaintance with Patsy Cline.
The most strangely documented relationship in Go, Cat, Go! is the one between Perkins and Phillips. While heaping accolades on Phillips for his direction and support of Perkins’ early career, the book also cites several improprieties involving that common bone of contention among ’50s songwriters: royalties. The subject ominously surfaces numerous times but is always handled with kid gloves. Perkins and McGee (or their lawyers) insinuate that there’s more to the Phillips story but inevitably sugarcoat it.
Go, Cat, Go! is entertaining, but Perkins and McGee should have made it either an autobiography or an authorized biography, rather than both. Besides the schizophrenic design, the reader must also contend with some less than proficient prose: “[Perkins’ guitar] was like a living thing—it would say ‘I love you’ to Carl in the sweetest tones he’d ever heard, as if it were an angel speaking,” the authors gush in one passage; later, they observe that “[t]he Judds (Naomi, the mother; Wynonna, the daughter), Kentucky natives both, were more than a couple of attractive, sexy women.” Thanks for letting us know.
Perkins’ music needs no improvement, but Go, Cat, Go! could have used some more rehearsal time.