Late in "A Rockabilly Session --
Carl Perkins and Friends," Perkins turns to the audience and asks, "Did my class graduate or not?" Since the "rockabilly buddies" who clutter the studio stage include Beatles George Harrison and Ringo Starr, guitarists Eric Clapton and Dave Edmunds, Rosanne Cash and two-thirds of the Stray Cats, you'd have to think, yes, Carl, they sure did.
Perkins, of course, is one of the progenitors of Memphis rockabilly, and therefore something of a granddaddy to rock 'n' roll. "A Rockabilly Session" (tomorrow at 10 p.m. on Cinemax) is a warm, if not particularly engaging, tribute to the man who wrote and recorded "Blue Suede Shoes" 30 years to the month before last November's get-together in London.
"Blue Suede Shoes" was the first rock song to top the R&B, pop and country charts simultaneously, and in early 1956 Perkins looked to be on his way to superstardom along with his Sun Records stable mate, Elvis Presley. But on his way to appearances on the Ed Sullivan and Perry Como television shows in New York, Perkins was involved in a car crash that left his brother and his manager dead, his body broken and his career in limbo. When he came back a year later, rockabilly was already on the wane -- though it would continue to influence future rock generations, including the Beatles, who recorded three Perkins classics, "Matchbox," "Honey Don't" and "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby."
Perkins went on to develop a career in country music (the only nod to that here is "Turn Around"), but he is best remembered by rock fans and musicians for the vibrant and visceral rockabilly tunes that dominate this hour-long program, recorded in a small studio before an audience that had put its cat clothes on.
Unlike his other surviving Sun mates (Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis, who all mumble praise at the beginning of the program), the 54-year-old Perkins looks fit as an electic guitar. He may not perform with quite the same abandon as he did the first time around, but there is a rewarding virility to Perkins' music and presence: You're still not likely to step on his blue suede shoes.
The folks who support Perkins, including his bassist and drummer sons, seem genuinely enthused, and if this cattle-call concert is at times ragged, it is energetically so. And it's nice to see Harrison (who sings "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby" and takes a number of guitar breaks) and Starr (vocals on "Honey Don't," drums on several other songs) working again. The most impressive playing, however, comes from Clapton, particularly on "Mean Woman Blues."
The program's only drawbacks are the sameness of many of the tunes and the space limitations that keep director Tom Gutteridge from developing any visual rhythm. The nicest moment comes toward the end, when Perkins and company sit around on chairs, looking very much like a rock ceili band (with a six-man guitarmy, tambourines and standing snares) and doing a loose medley of Sun classics like "That's All Right, Mama," "Blue Moon of Kentucky," "Glad All Over" and "Whole Lotta Shakin'," which is exactly what's going on as everyone pays tribute to the man and the music that meant so much, then as now.
"One for the money, two for the show, I'd dance but I'm getting old," Perkins complains at one point. But that's just disinformation, rock 'n' roll style.