"BLUE SUEDE SHOES" has been called the first true rock 'n' roll hit, in the sense that it was an "all market" hit. Some R&B hits had sold well in the pop market (most notably Chuck Berry's "Maybellene," which had even outsold the white cover versions); likewise, some country records had crossed over into the pop market, and Bill Haley had defined his own pop/R&B hybrid. But there had never been a record that had sold well in all three markets.
While it seems almost pointless to try to pinpoint where rock 'n' roll began, it's fairly clear that the music incorporated elements of blues, country, and pop. "Blue Suede Shoes" was the first record to borrow from all three categories and become a hit on all three charts. That is Carl Perkins' achievement, and it is worth a detailed look at exactly how it happened.
Fall 1955. Johnny Cash joins Carl Perkins for a show in Amory, Mississippi. He suggests that Carl write a song based on a saying he had heard in the chow line while he was in the service, "Don't step on my blue suede shoes."
A few nights later Perkins is playing in Jackson, Tennessee, when he sees a dancer in the crowd trying to keep his girlfriend away from his new blue suede shoes. It connects with the idea that Cash had given him. At three o'clock the following morning, Perkins awakens with the genesis of the song in his head. He goes downstairs and writes out the lyrics in pencil on an empty potato bag. Suede is spelled swaed.
Early December 1955. Perkins and his brothers have worked up the new song to the point where they feel comfortable auditioning it for Sam Phillips. For his part, Phllips is unsure about the future of "hillbilly bop" music, but now that Presley has departed, he is willing to let Perkins experiment in the new style.
Perkins runs through the song for Phillips in the studio. Phillips commits three cuts to tape. On the first take, Perkins sings " . . . three to get ready, now go boy go!" Phillips suggests that Perkins change it to "go cat go!" They also change "drink my corn" to drink my liquor" as the song is gradually eased uptown.
Three other songs are recorded at the same time: "Sure to Fall" (with Jay taking the lead), "Tennessee" (with Jay joining Carl on the chorus), and "Honey, Don't."
December 19, 1955. Phillips listens to the tapes and decides to master two singles from the sessions. He assigns master numbers as follows:
U-176 - "Blue Suede Shoes"
U-177 - "Honey, Don't"
U-178 - "Sure to Fall"
U-179 - "Tennessee"
There is some talk immediately after the session of keeping the old formula of coupling a rockabilly tune with a country weeper, but Phillips decides to go with one rockabilly single to be released under Carl's name and one country single, coupling "Sure to Fall" and "Tennessee," under the name of the Perkins Brothers Band or, possibly, Carl and Jay Perkins.
Phillips cuts masters on both singles and ships acetates via Air Express to Jack Rosen at Superior Records in Los Angeles. He instructs Rosen to process the acetate masters and ship sets of 45-rpm and 78-rpm stampers (the metal parts used to press records) to Plastic Products in Memphis. "Make all shipments by air," adds Phillips, "and we surely will appreciate your doing a RUSH job on these - especially 176 and 177."
Late December 1955. Phillips circulates dubs (acetates run from the tapes) to local radio stations and confirms that his hunch is correct: "Blue Suede Shoes" is the side to watch. Plastic Products has the first commercial copies ready by the last week in December.
January 1, 1956. "Blue Suede Shoes," backed with "Honey, Don't," is released. "Sure to Fall"/ "Tennessee" is held back, probably because Phillips does not want to risk splitting airplay.
January 20-21, 1956. Based on its local reception, Phillips suspects that there will be a heavy demand for "Blue Suede Shoes" and instructs Superior to ship stampers to Paramount in Philadelphia and Monarch Manufacturing in Los Angeles. "We anticipate that this number will be very big," adds Phillips.
Billboard reviews "Blue Suede Shoes" in their country music review section: "Perkins contributes a lively reading on a gay rhythm ditty with a strong R&B styled backing. Fine for the jukes." The rating is 76/100.
February 1956. "Blue Suede Shoes" enters the local memphis country charts on February 11 at number 2. The following week it is number 1, where it remains for three months. Billboard picks it as a "Country Best Buy." "Interestingly enough," adds Billboard, "the disk has a large measure of appeal for pop and R&B customers." It starts to sell in huge quantities throughout the South.
Early March 1956. Billboard picks "Blue Suede Shoes" as one to watch for the pop market. It features in their "Coming Up Strong" picks. The cover versions start appearing. The first is probably by western swing bandleader Pee Wee King, to whom Carl had given a prerelease acetate when both artists played for the Milk Fund in Memphis. King's version, recorded on February 7, hits the street in early March. It is followed in short order by versions from Boyd Bennett, Bob Roubian with Cliffie Stone's Orchestra, Sid King, Lawrence Welk, Roy Hall, Sam "The Man" Taylor, and Jim Lowe. It is also covered by Elvis Presley, but Presley's version is initially available only on his first album and an EP drawn from it. Presley performs the song during his appearance on the Dorsey Brothers television show on March 17.
"Blue Suede Shoes" appears on Billboard's Hot 100 on March 3. Presley's debut RCA single, Heartbreak Hotel," makes its appearance on the charts the same week. Billboard dubs both songs "mongrel music" and notes that Perkins is showing up on seven territorial R&B charts.
Perkins returns to the studio to cut a follow-up. Four songs are recorded, but the intense action surrounding "Blue Suede Shoes" convinces Phillips to delay mastering a new single. "Blue Suede Shoes" is selling over twenty thousand copies a day.
March 10, 1956. Carl Perkins becomes the first country artist to reach the national rhythm and blues charts ("Blue Suede Shoes" eventually peaks at number 2). He is followed three weeks later by Elvis Presley with "Heartbreak Hotel" (which peaks at number 3).
March 21, 1956. The Perkins band together with manager Dick Stuart are driving to New York for a taping of the Perry Como television show. They leave Norfolk, Virginia, and get lost in Delaware. With Dick Stuart asleep at the wheel, their huge eight-seater Chrysler slams into a poultry truck near Dover, Delaware. The driver, Thomas Phillips, a forty-four-year-old farmer from nearby Paradise Valley, is killed. Jay Perkins suffers a fractured neck and several internal injuries when they are thrown from the vehicle. Carl has a broken shoulder, cracked skull, and lacerations.
April 1956. "Blue Suede Shoes" finally tops most charts. Although it spends almost five months on Billboard's country and pop charts, it is excluded from the number 1 position by "Heartbreak Hotel." By early May both Perkins and Sun Records have logged their first million-seller.