Welcome to “Original Rock Legends!” To celebrate Geva’s final show this season, the hit musical Million Dollar Quartet directed by Hunter Foster, I’m taking you through a musical journey, uncovering the history behind the songs featured in Million Dollar Quartet.
This week, we’re exploring the legends behind Carl Perkins’ music:
“Blue Suede Shoes” –1955
“Well, it’s, one for the money/Two for the show/Three to get ready/Now go cat, go!/But don’t you step on /My blue suede shoes/ You can do anything/ But lay off of my /blue suede shoes.”
Carl Perkins wasn’t exactly the luckiest fellow when it came to his career. Even though he’s responsible for many of rock’s greatest hits, Perkins’ own recordings of his songs never topped the charts, while other top artists’ covers of his songs became the most memorable versions of Perkins’ songs. The story of how “Blue Suede Shoes” “became” an Elvis Presley standard is one of the most unfortunate examples of this trend:
Most sources agree that Perkins got the idea to write “Blue Suede Shoes” from his Sun Records stablemate, Johnny Cash, who had a friend in the Air Force who was very protective of his blue suede formal shoes. In a 1988 interview, Cash recalled the story that inspired the tune: ““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.’”
Cash sympathized with Perkins, who still didn’t have a hit song while Elvis Presley was on the rise. Though various accounts debate whether Perkins took his suggestion seriously or not at first, eventually Perkins took the new song to Sam Phillips, and recorded on December 19, 1955. The song was released on New Year’s Day, but didn’t gain much traction nationally until Billboard magazine listed it in its column, “This Week’s Best Buys,” on February 18, 1956. Later that spring, “Blue Suede Shoes” made it onto Billboard’s Top 100 list for 21 weeks, including 9 weeks in the top ten.
Simultaneously, Elvis Presley had recorded a cover of “Blue Suede Shoes” with RCA, intended as a filler on his first album and a tribute to his friend, Perkins. According to Sun Records’ Sam Phillips, RCA’s Steve Sholes had promised not to release the Presley recording while the Perkins version was still high on the charts. However, the recording was released on Presley’s first LP on March 23, 1956, and though it never affected Perkins’ chart rankings, Presley made the song such a staple in his public performances that in the public’s eye, “Blue Suede Shoes” belonged to him.
The Perkins Brothers Band had an opportunity to reclaim Perkins’ public image as the rightful creator of the song, but an unfortunate accident rewrote the course of cultural history. While driving to New York City to perform on the Perry Como Show—which could have restored Perkins’ ownership of the song in the public’s eye just as Presley’s popularity with the song was rising—the brothers got into a terrible car accident that landed them all in the hospital, preventing them from performing the song on TV. Even though the brothers booked as spot on the show later that year and performed the song, Perkins could never fully recover from the stalled momentum in promoting his song—and from the massive PR mistake of competing with Elvis Presley.
Here’s a clip of Carl Perkins singing “Blue Suede Shoes” on the Perry Como Show in May 1956 (months after his originally-scheduled engagement): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DRNyvO4QouY
And, here’s a re-mastered version of Elvis Presley’s “Blue Suede Shoes” the same year: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bm5HKlQ6nGM
Thanks for tuning in to “Original Rock Legends!” We’ll be back on Friday with more stories behind the legendary musicians who defined rock ‘n’ roll. This program is sponsored by Geva Theatre Center, where the Million Dollar Quartet comes back to life, LIVE onstage, May 30th through June 25th. Until next time, rock on my friends!