Mighty high cotton

Are you gonna be there? Well, I got my invite.

Mondays aren’t generally renowned for their life-affirming qualities.  But Monday 21st October 1985 was to prove an exception and has taught me never to judge the day by its downbeat wrapper.  My first driving lesson had seen me happily pootle around Tooting’s leafy side streets, and whilst I’d managed not to hit anything or anyone, I sensed from the instructor’s ashen face on dropping me home that I probably wasn’t quite ready to be let loose on Hyde Park Corner at rush hour (no namby pamby traffic lights in those days, either).  The indecent haste with which he then lit a cigarette and floored it suggested I wasn’t wrong.  No sooner was I indoors, than the phone started ringing.  With teapot mid-air, in customary fashion my mother looked at me, I at her and then at my brother as we broke into a well-worn chorus of “oh, no – who can that be?” none of us wanting to get stuck on the phone while the PG grew cold.

Inevitably I drew the short straw and picked up the phone, “8591?”

“Are you doing anything?” was my sister’s urgent reply.

“Just about to have some nosh.”

“Well, forget that and get up to Capital Radio.  Roger Scott’s giving away tickets for a Carl Perkins gig to the first twenty people who turn up to the foyer in 50s gear.”

“Can’t you go?  You’re only down the road.”

“I’ve already had my break.”

“Oh, all right.  When is it?”

“Tonight!”

A frequent visitor to these shores from the time he first toured alongside Chuck Berry and The Animals in 1964, Rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins was always assured a warm welcome whenever he came to the UK.  One of the original Sun stars, Perkins wrote songs that became Rock’n’Roll standards almost as soon as the ink was dry, earning covers by former label-mate Elvis Presley and later The Beatles – not bad going for a poor ol’ country boy from Tiptonville!  Regular appearances alongside Johnny Cash in the early 70s, coupled with the launch of his Ol’ Blue Suede’s Back album at the height of the Rock’n’Roll revival and sporadic tours in the 1980s and 90s, ensured this modest yet supremely talented gentleman had a special place in the hearts (and record collections) of his many European fans.  That’s hardly surprising really, bearing in mind that in 1956 he’d given the world ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and from that point had been on a mission to rock its collective socks off.

Castle Select's 2002 reissue which featured Carl's previously unreleased track-by-track narration

Born too late to have witnessed his first UK appearances, and still too young to tag along to the launch party for his Ol’ Blue Suede’s Back album in 1978, it wasn’t until that night in 1985 that I finally got to see the great Carl Perkins perform live.  His Sun recordings had reverberated around the house as I was growing up, thanks to my sister Sue’s Rockabilly leanings and her particular soft spot for Pa Gherkins, by which Buchanan & Goodmanism he was affectionately known.  So when Sue phoned me that Autumn day to tell me Capital Radio deejay Roger Scott was giving away a limited number of tickets for a “Carl Perkins television show” to the first people to turn up at the station dressed in appropriate Rock’n’Roll attire, in truth I didn’t need much persuasion to put my cat clothes on and high-tail off to Euston Tower in the hope of being one of the lucky few to secure ring-side seats.  Having been given the sartorial thumbs up by Mr Scott and awarded our tickets, so began the scramble to get home, doll ourselves up and hopefully cajole our brother Al into driving us to the studios where the show was being recorded that night.

Come on, it’s starting!!” came the urgent cry as we all bolted into the sitting room brandishing plates of peanut butter on toast and a tray of tea.  Exactly thirty years to the day since the release of its namesake, January 1st 1986 saw Channel 4 air Blue Suede Shoes – A Rockabilly Session, a one-off television special that has since come to be regarded a classic, not least for its stellar line-up.  For too long Rock’n’Roll had been confined to the media back burner and aside from a few specialist shows, radio airplay was limited in spite of a thriving underground scene.  Contemporary bands such as The Stray Cats had succeeded in breaking into the mainstream in the early 80s, and although their hits had tailed off by 1983, they remained a popular live act.  Despite enviable credentials and retro appeal (oft-plundered by fashionistas and advertising agencies alike to wit: BBH’s Levi’s 501s campaign), the Big Beat barely registered on the uber-trendy Richter scale of youff programmes such as The Tube, so the idea of an entire hour’s peak-time viewing dedicated to the genre was nothing short of remarkable, and indicative of the pioneering stance championed by Channel 4 in its early days.

Music publisher Graham Nolder had first conceived the idea of a TV show where Carl Perkins could perform his classic songs alongside an all-star band after the pair had briefly worked together in the early 80s.  By 1984 the time was right and, having recently made the reunion album Class Of ’55 with fellow Sun luminaries Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison, Carl was clearly in nostalgic mood and agreed to take part.  In order to persuade some of the scene’s hottest players to come on board (all of whom shared the happy coincidence of being his friends), Carl duly recorded a series of personal video messages along the lines of “Hello, I bet you didn’t expect this.  I have been invited to record a TV show of my Rockabilly songs and I’d be really honoured if you could come along to play.” The tapes were mailed out and the response was overwhelmingly positive, although sadly none of his Class Of ’55 compadres was able to participate in the live show.  Meanwhile Carl’s career was enjoying an unexpected fillip thanks to a cameo appearance in John Landis’ black comedy Into The Night, in which he engages in a bizarre knife-wielding fight-to-the-death with David Bowie.  Although the show had originally been mooted shortly after Carl received the Elvis Presley Foundation Memorial Award for his contribution to Memphis art forms in 1984, such was everyone’s schedule that it would be a full 18 months before they could all be available in one place at the same time.  That place turned out to be London’s Limehouse Studios, on the site of what is now Canary Wharf.

Put your cat clothes on...

Pre-Docklands Light Railway, pre-Jubilee line extension, we were glad of a lift across town that October evening to a remote warehouse-like venue that was literally in the middle of nowhere at the furthest reach of a dead-end street.  In that infuriating way brothers have, Al was not convinced “we’d got this right” and seemed reluctant to leave us, clearly envisaging Dickensian cut-purses and the like but we told him not to worry and he duly split, the Camaro’s tail-lights glowing like embers as he drove off.  Needless to say, we’d given no thought as to how we’d make the trek back to Wandsworth; getting here was all we’d been worried about.  As we stood outside in the inky black chill with the wind lapping off the river and rustling our petticoats, the crowd grew steadily and an atmosphere of anticipation began to crackle in the frosty night air.  We stood for nearly an hour watching the good and the great being whisked inside and as our tickets didn’t specify who else would be playing, we wiled the time away speculating who Carl’s “friends” might be as we stamped our feet to keep warm.  Suddenly the wait was over, the doors flew open and we were in.

Seated to the left of the stage we watched the technicians setting up and before long Carl emerged to welcome the audience and inform us that “if we’re lucky, they’re gonna see this all over the world”. We’d already spotted Dave Edmunds and Mickey Gee tuning their guitars and knew we were in for a blast when Stray Cats’ bass player Lee Rocker and drummer Slim Jim Phantom also appeared.  With Geraint Watkins on piano and Carl’s son Greg on electric bass, the stage was set and the cameras began to roll.  Teasing us with the opening lyric to ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, Carl then ripped into ‘Boppin’ The Blues’, swiftly followed by another Perkins’ sartorial ode, ‘Put Your Cat Clothes On’.  Aside from the sheer energy that hit us like a tidal wave, what was also immediately evident was the easy rapport between Carl and the other musicians who were clearly relishing performing alongside one of Rock’n’Roll’s founding fathers.

Band introductions complete, the first surprise of the evening came after Slim Jim slipped away leaving a vacant drum kit …enter Ringo Starr!  We couldn’t believe we were sitting feet away from the former moptop watching him reprise ‘Honey Don’t’ which he’d first recorded for 1964’s Beatles For Sale.  Relaxed and in fine fettle, Starr’s trademark drollness came to the fore as he threw Carl a few good-natured – and clearly unrehearsed – verbal curves.  Before we’d had time to catch our breath, Carl was welcoming another Rock legend on stage, none other than guitar great Eric Clapton.  The pair tore into ‘Matchbox and traded licks on an equally exuberant ‘Mean Woman Blues’.  What we didn’t realise as we sat transfixed by what was rapidly shaping up to be the gig of the century, was that Clapton had just stepped off a plane from Japan and headed straight from the airport to the studios.  If he was jet-lagged his playing certainly didn’t give it away.

After the pace slowed with a superb rendition of his first Sun release ‘Turn Around’, it was time for the evening’s only female guest to make her entrance.  Remarking that he used to rock this young lady in her cradle, Carl welcomed out feisty Country chanteuse Rosanne Cash.  Duetting on a down-homey ‘Jackson’ that underscored their affection for one another, Cash then rocked out to great effect on ‘What Kinda Girl?’, a Steve Forbert song which had originally appeared on her 1981 US Country #1 album Seven Year Ache.

“This is a special of all the greatest things that could ever happen to me. This is my night with my friends.”

Wondering how the evening could possibly be improved upon, the question was answered when Carl introduced his next guest in emotional tones, “…somebody said he retired. I said, ‘it ain’t true, he will come out, he’ll shake again’ and he is here is to rock with us and celebrate tonight: George Harrison!” The studio fairly erupted as a dapper-looking George strode up, strapped on his guitar and launched into ‘Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby’, followed by a breathtaking ‘Your True Love’.  No-one could have been left in any doubt as to the deep friendship between the two, as evidenced on their duet ‘The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise’.  Seated alone with Carl, Harrison watched attentively as his friend nimbly demonstrated Les Paul’s famous echo technique; the love and respect Harrison held for him was there for all to see and humbling to behold.

L-R: Carl Perkins, Dave Edmunds & George Harrison (photo courtesy of Mark Lewisohn)

The scene was then set for an informal jam session and with all the musicians seated in a row “like a bunch of 1st graders” it was time for Carl to play the role of teacher, as he led the group into a barnstorming Rock’n’Roll medley.  Kicking off with ‘That’s All Right, Mama’ and segueing into ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’, the feel didn’t let up for a moment as the “students” brought it home Gospel-style with a rousing ‘Night Train To Memphis’.  Strumming the opening bars and taking the vocal lead, Harrison introduced another feel-good Perkins classic, ‘Glad All Over’ whilst Carl confessed he couldn’t remember the words!  Admitting it would be remiss to let an occasion such as this go by without mentioning Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl and co. paid tribute to The Killer with ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On’.

By now many of the audience were taking to the floor to bop and jive as Carl broke into ‘Gone, Gone, Gone’ followed by the undoubted climax of the evening: ‘Blue Suede Shoes’.  Looking back it’s hard to do justice to the electrifying atmosphere of that night such was its magnitude, an event made all the more enjoyable because of its easy-going, organic nature.  What came over on TV was every bit as exciting as watching the performance live; a group of buddies (albeit the superstar kind) having fun and revelling in each other’s playing as though they were jamming at home.  Full marks must go to director Tom Gutteridge who managed to capture that spontaneity without impinging on the natural ebb and flow of the recording.  The sight of Carl on stage surrounded by world-class musicians and friends alike, performing his best known and perhaps best loved song was as fine an endorsement of Rock’n’Roll’s longevity and relevance as anyone could wish to have.

After a stunning encore, a tearful Carl told the audience “I have sung that song since 1955 when I wrote it exactly 30 years ago this month.  I have never in my life enjoyed singing that song like I did tonight with these people, my friends, my Rockabilly buddies and you, the greatest people in the world.  God bless you.”   In conveying his heartfelt thanks, Carl’s humility and generous spirit shone through.  Here was a true originator, an artist who had inspired a generation of musicians to greatness and yet he’d never lost sight of the joy of performing in front of a live audience.

As the crowd began to flock around Carl, Sue and I noticed George standing to the right of the stage unplugging his guitar and exuding characteristic Zen-like calm.  “Let’s go up to him, he’s all on his own.” So we did.  “Excuse me, Mr. Harrison..?” “Here, what’s all this ‘Mr Harrison’, girls?” he replied, smiling as we giggled.  “Well, we don’t know you..!” I replied, coyly.  The three of us chatted for a while, we thanked him for an amazing show and he very graciously autographed our tickets.  With Carl, George, Roger Scott, Carl’s son Greg, and more recently Mickey Gee all sadly gone, I now treasure the memory of that evening all the more.

Buoyed by the international acclaim which followed the broadcast, Carl found himself rebranded a “living legend”, much to his bemusement as he was very much focused on the here and now, writing new material and with plans for a follow-up US TV special already mapped out.  Even so, his illustrious past continued to colour his present and in 1986 he was awarded a Grammy Hall of Fame Award for ‘Blue Suede Shoes’.  In November of that year he was selected for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame along with Roy Orbison, joining fellow Sun pioneers Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis who’d been among the inaugural inductees the year before.  In his autobiography Go, Cat, Go! published a year before his death, Carl describes turning to Roy at the plush awards ceremony at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and congratulating his friend, “I’m proud of you”.  Roy responded in kind, adding, “I wish Elvis had lived to experience this.  This is mighty high cotton, isn’t it?” Mighty high cotton, indeed, and pretty much how I still feel about that magical night twenty-five years on.

And although we probably could’ve floated home on a cloud, in case you’re wondering how we actually made it back… Sue started chatting to a couple of Teds who happened to live in Peckham, south-east London.  Much to the annoyance of their girlfriends I don’t doubt, one of them offered us a lift so we all piled into his car.  Sue and I have often pondered what an incongruous sight that must have been; a Datsun Bluebird laden down lowrider style so that its rear axle was practically sparking the tarmac as we sputtered up the Old Kent Road, packed to the gunnels with net petticoats, outsized quiffs and many happy memories of Carl and his friends.

This article was originally published in Now Dig This, Issue No. 331 October 2010

Recall DVD SDVD514

Carl Perkins & friends: Blue Suede Shoes · A Rockabilly Special is available on DVD from Snapper Music PLC

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2 Responses to Mighty high cotton

  1. Jerry says:

    Very well written – and lovingly written – thank you for sharing that.

    The program is an ultimate highlight, in lives full of highlights, in the careers of both Carl Perkins and George Harrison. I first stumbled across the audio on a Harrison bootleg in the 90s – prior to that I don’t think I knew that night occurred – but now that night will live “eternally” on the internet – it is finally good for something!

    That is the happiest and most natural I’ve ever seen George – and he plays those songs with LOVE – and like he owns them… Wow..

    And let’s not forget the great Dave Edmunds – I’m sure the glue of the evening..

    Your description of the running order helps – I think versions I have seen have the running order chopped up – but the sequencing you mentioned sounds like they built it right. Also – to hear of the excitement the of the night and the back stories make this a nice story – thank you!

  2. admin says:

    Thank you, Jerry. I’m so pleased you enjoyed my post and took the trouble to comment. It truly was a memorable night; amazing to think it was more than thirty years ago!

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