Whenever there was a death in his family, Elvis always sent a plastic willow tree with 12 redbirds in it. Never missed, Carl Perkins says, shaking his head, stubbing out a cigarette, amazed at it yet. "I don't know, the boy was so full of energy back when I knew him. He never just sat around a dressing room. Course, Cash and I sat around some." A grin splinters the huge, lined face.
The TV is on; the sound isn't. The spread on the bed is mussed, the pillow upended against the headboard. A lamp tosses yellow light. This is Washington and the Quality Inn Iwo Jima. Carl Perkins looks around. He pulls at a drape. He has seen the insides of this pale afternoon dream before.
He's in his early 40s now, with rocks on both hands and a small tire on his belly. One lens of the outsized designer glasses is cut with tiny jewels. The shagged gray-black hair isn't his - hasn't been ever since a bad auto accident 20 years ago nearly took his life.
His one monster hit, "Blue Suede Shoes," is older than a lot of the audiences who turn up to hear him these days. It's about as old as the two Perkins boys, Stan and Greg, who now, play backup in Daddy's band. (Another son, Steve, occasionally helps drive the tour bus.) Stan and Greg are a couple of rooms down. Greg plays bass guitar. "That little critter can pick," says his father. "He rolls it around, he really does." This comes out soft and full of pride.
In the pantheon of rockabilly, Carl Perkins has his own place. He was there at the beginning, along with Elvis and Jerry Lee and John R. Cash at Sun Studios at 706 Union St. in Memphis when an unknown genius named Sam Phillips began turning knobs and dials of an unheard of phenomenon: white Southern boys jumping to black rhythm and blues.
Presley and Lewis and Cash all took off, of course, comets of various brightness and style. (Elvis eventually went Vegas; Jerry Lee became "The Killer," Cash became the "Man in Black" and stuck close to country.
The fourth member of that million-dollar quartet, the one who was said to combine the Hank Williams vocal abilities with a raucous, sputtering guitar, never really got into the stratosphere. Whiskey and self-doubt and a plague of debilitating accidents played a hand in that. And yet today, the rock historians clamor around, the audiences are bigger and more appreciative than ever, he's fronting for no body but himself. In England, his new album (just coming out here) is a hit. It's called, "Ol' Blue Suede's Back."
"Son, I feel better and more excited about my career than when I cut my first record with Sam Phillips, I really do," says the molasses voice, suddenly rising like a river. "I even feel younger. I don't sit in the motel room hung over anymore. And when I'm done with a show, seems like I have to sign records for a good hour. Hell, some of these albums are 20 years old. They bring up old 78s of 'Blue Suede Shoes.'"
His current tour started the 21st of last month at the Boarding House in San Francisco, Perkins says. "Now I'm going to tell you like it is. I was just a scared old man when I got up there onstage. I'd played backup for John Cash all these years - I forgot what it was like to be the main event. I looked down at all those faces and said, 'Now folks, let's get something clear right off, just so's you don't think I'm a smart-alec or a jerk or anything else. I'm flat scared out here."
"Hell, son, they all stood and started clapping. I hadn't played a note."
Carl Perkins, calls nearly everyone "son." No offense - just Southern affection.
Something else you have to understand, he says: The mystique of suede shoes in the Deep South back in the 50s. "Man, if you had suedes in that part of the country, you were a cat." He italicizes "cat," grinning at himself as much as all those nameless filling station jockeys who used to sit around his hometown of Jackson, Tenn., in their new Thom McAns.
Got the idea for the tune, he says, (which sold two million copies before Elvis even touched it), from an overheard remark during a gig. "This guy right down in front of me swore to this girl she could steal his car before she could step on his new suedes. The line hung with me all night. I wrote it down about 3 o'clock that morning. Didn't have any paper, so took three potatoes out of a brown sack and wrote it on that. My wife Valda and I were living in a housing project. We didn't have any kids in school, and our relatives just about lived right there in Jackson with us. So I wouldn't have had any writing paper anyway."
This gets a small yuk.
Plenty of writing took place, paper or no. Ricky Nelson's first song - "Bopping the Blues" - was a Carl Perkins tune. Bob Dylan cut "Match Box" in Minnesota when he was still Robert Zimmerman; only 250 copies were pressed. Other Perkins songs were recorded by Patsy Cline. Once, in England, the Beatles cut three of his tune while he looked on. Last April, Paul McCartney gave him a party.
There always seemed something self-destructive, though. His wife would come in and sit on the bed and say, Carl, do you have to carry on so? The drinking and all? "She never get in the car and I'd drop them off, then go on to the bootlegger. There were days - hell, years - I'd be ashamed to go home after a tour. Blown all the money."
In 1964, he caught his picking hand in a window fan. One finger is permanently crooked, there's little feeling in two others. He learned to play around his disability. He remembers the wild, siren-led drive home to Jackson that day. He thought he was dying. "I was in the back seat and this disc jockey boy was driving. I said, 'Son, can't you go a little faster?' There was this tunnel ahead of me with a pinpoint of light. Everything was beautiful shades of blue."
The next year, in '65, Perkins nearly blew his foot off with a shotgun. "I'm not even supposed to be able to walk. I was crossing this fence, dropped the gun, dove for it." He pulls his sock down to expose two ugly brown rivets in his heel. My wife said, 'Carl, I think God's after you.' I started thinking."
Johnny Cash came to visit. "He said, 'Damn, Perkins, every time I read about you in the papers, you've just laid yourself up.' Now Cash himself wasn't doing so hot. He weighed about 135 pounds. He was on his pill kick. He told me to come with him on tour. Eventually, he threw away the pills and I threw away the whiskey."
Just between Carl Perkins and the woodwork, he's a little worried about his old friend Cash these days. "He's started hanging around with Waylon. That Waylon. He'll take a doorknob, down if he thought it would taste good."
Carl Perkins' autobiography has just come out. It's called "Disciple in Blue Suede Shoes." He means "disciple" in the biblical sense. He's found himself - and his God. "I say in the book I'm not the man I need to be and not the man I want to be, but thank God I'm not the man I used to be."
History has its curious footnotes. One cold day in early 1957, Carl Perkins booked session time at Sun Studios. He thought it was going to be just another session. He paid a blond-headed rocker named Jerry Lee Lewis, who had yet to hit any fame, $15 to come in and play piano all day. Cash was there - he had nothing else to do and just wanted to listen. After awhile, Presley walked in. He belonged to RCA Victor by then; he was already immortal. He had come by to see his old cronies.
Presley sat at the piano. Jerry Lee sang tenor, Cash bass, Perkins came in with his deep, lonesome wail. Sam Phillips turned on the machine, and the result, which survives today as a single piece of recording tape, is one hour and 15 minutes of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins singing their hearts out on gospel. Perkins thinks the tape is worth millions. The issue of the tape is currently in court.
"I say that tape belongs to me. It was my session. For years I didn't even know there was a tape. I'd always heard stories about one, but I never knew for sure. Now that we know, I intend fighting for it. I don't want the money for myself particularly. I swear I'd like to give some of it to poor kids around this country."
Long pause. The old picker grins. "I can almost hear Elvis up there now saying, 'Carl, I'm right behind you.'"