Blues Suede Shoes is one of those rare songs that lives two extremely successful lives. First with rockabilly singer Carl Perkins, and then with The King.
There are straight-up classics, genius compositions, and groundbreaking tunes that pierce through the ozone of the wider public consciousness. Blue Suede Shoes is the latter.
From Perkins to Presley: this is the evolutionary tale of a historic tune.
Blue suede shoes were a luxury item in the South. Stylish footwear for a night out on the town. Since suede is quite difficult to clean it was the pin-up staple of wealth and fun.
Carl Perkins never owned a pair, but Johnny Cash told him a story about someone who did. As Cash told it, he and Perkins were performing at a show in Amory, Mississippi alongside Elvis Presley. When Presley took to the stage, Cash told Perkins a story from his days serving in the Air Force in Germany. Cash’s sergeant, C.V. White, wore his military best when he was allowed off base, and at one point said to Johnny, “Don’t step on my blue suede shoes”. The shoes were really just Air Force-issued black, but White would say, “Tonight they’re blue suede”.
The tale Perkins later told is that he was playing at a high school sorority dance when he spied a gentleman who wasn’t paying much attention to his date. Instead, he was telling everybody not to step on his “suedes”. At 3 am that night Perkins woke up and scrambled to pen the lyrics based on what happened that night and the story from Cash. He couldn’t find any paper so he wrote it on a potato sack.
Almost 64 years ago to the day, Perkins recorded the track at Sun Records Studios in Memphis, 17 December 1955. Producer Sam Phillips urged Perkins to change the lyrics in the second verse from ‘go, boy, go’ to ‘go, cat, go’, giving the song more punch.
On the way to make his first national appearance on the Perry Como Show to promote Blue Suede Shoes, the band was involved in a serious motor vehicle accident. Shortly before sunup the driver crashed and was killed instantly. Carl Perkins fractured his shoulder and skull and was rushed to hospital. His brother Jay Perkins suffered a fractured neck and severe internal injuries from which he died a few years later.
“I was a poor farm boy, and with ‘Shoes’ I felt I had a chance but suddenly there I was in the hospital,” Perkins recalled bitterly. A week later, Perkins was sent a telegram from Presley wishing him a speedy recovery.
Carl Perkins never achieved the fame of Presley who, according to him, “had everything. He had the looks, the moves, the manager, and the talent. And he didn’t look like Mr. Ed, like a lot of us did, Elvis was hitting them with sideburns, flashy clothes, and no ring on the finger. I had three kids.”
My mid-April however, Blue Suede Shoes had sold over one million copies earning Perkins a gold record. It was the first country song to cross over in the R&B and pop charts. Plus Perkins was the first-ever Sun Records performer to reach such a milestone.
Recording cover songs was pretty common practice in the 1940s and ’50s. The first covers RCA Victor wanted their new signee, Elvis Presley, to record was Heartbreak Hotel and Blue Suede Shoes.
RCA Victor with their superior distribution and radio servicing knew they could probably steal the hit from Perkins and after significant pressuring, Presley gave in. Despite this, he asked that RCA hold back the song as a single until Perkins version had lost steam.
Presley’s version features two guitar solos by Scotty Moore, with Bill Black on bass and D.J. Fontana on drums. Moore recalls, “We just went in there and started playing, just winged it. Just followed however Elvis felt.”
Moore has said that Presley recorded the song to help out Perkins after his accident. “Elvis wasn’t really thinking at that time that it was going to make money for Carl; he was doing it as more of a tribute type thing. Of course, Carl was glad he did. It really helped as his record started going down.”
Presley performed the song on national television three times in 1956. Blue Suede Shoes was the opening track of the iconic album Elvis Presley and is a defining moment of rock n’ roll history.
The legacy of Blue Suede Shoes is immense. Buddy Holly, Bill Haley, and Eddie Cochran all covered it soon after. Over the years many others have joined the ranks, so that it has become a staple, including Jimi Hendrix, Motorhead, Black Sabbath, The Grateful Dead, and Bruce Springsteen.
Most touching of all it gave an enormous sense of pride to its creator, Carl Perkins.
“After all those days in the cotton fields, the dreams came true on a gold record,” said Perking remembering his childhood in Tennessee. “It’s in my den where I can look at it every day. I wear it out lookin’ at it.”
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