Luther played the boogie
When Roy Cash introduced his appliance selling, younger brother, Johnny, to
a couple of colleagues at the Automobile Sales garage in Memphis, the
unlikeliest band in rock history was formed. Bass player, Marshall Grant
and guitarist, Luther Monroe Perkins became the Tennessee Two and with the
twitching genius of Johnny Cash fronting them, they cut their teeth playing
local picnics, church socials and the like before getting the nerve to
audition for Sun records owner Sam Phillips.
All three were limited in their musical abilities and Cash's vocal range
didn't exactly get the needles on the sound board working overtime. Cash
all but apologized to Sam for their inadequacies, but Sam pulled a master
stroke by emphasizing the groups sparseness, introducing the world to the
world's only boom-chicka-boom band.
They learnt their trade playing every school house and cat house in
Dixieland, travelling In Johnny's 1954 Plymouth with the nig doghouse bass
strapped to the roof. Their sound rarely changed over the years, it just
To me, the song that sums up Luther's playing, is the guitar break on the
Get Rhythm. The fist part is superb, all jangly and hypnotic, whereas on
the second part of the solo, it's single string plonking that sounds like
he's going to miss the next note. The overall result is perfect. I also
love his intro to Home Of The Blues. It's simple, but it gives the feeling
that he's walking down the street to the home of the blues, side by side
The new Johnny Cash at the Town Hall Party DVD on Bear Family shows Luther
and all his idiosyncrasies, plucking away with all the concentration he can
muster. Johnny even tells the crowd that Luther's been dead for a couple of
years but just doesn't know it yet.
In November 1957 Jamboree acknowledged the groups sound when they voted The
Tennessee Two the "Best New Instrumental Group". Even when Jack Clement
sweetened the sound with the addition of backing vocals in '58, they still
wisely chose to retain the sparse backing with Johnny's rhythm and
Luther's picking, there was no need for pianos and saxes.
A weird session on 25th October 1959 saw Johnny's nephew Roy Cash Jr. cut a
couple of songs as Roy Rivers whilst Johnny himself cut I Got Stripes and
Five Feet High And Rising in German. Two instrumentals were also cut, both
profiling Luther's guitar, the up-tempo Bandana and a pleasant take on the
old slowie, Wabash Blues. The two sides were issued on Columbia as The
Tennessee Two And Friend, but failed to give Duane Eddy a run for his money.
As the 60's wore on and the band was augmented by the guitar work of Carl
Perkins, Luther and Carl formed a tight ensemble, perfectly demonstrated on
the newly enhanced CD, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. Unfortunately, it was
to be Luther's last significant role as he perished in a house fire in
August 1968. He fell asleep with a lighted cigarette in his hand and died a
couple of days later without ever regaining consciousness. He is buried at
Woodlawn East Memorial Park in Hendersonville, Tennessee.
Such was Johnny's love for the man that he continued to send his widow
Luther's pay cheque for six months after his death. Carl Perkins took over
Luther's duties until the arrival of Bob Wootten, a Tulsa, Oklahoma native
who'd studied the licks of Luther note for note.
In his autobiography Cash (1997 with Patrick Carr), Johnny Cash remembered
Luther as "a gracious man, about five years older than me. He was a good
driver, and he enjoyed it; he'd stay up at the wheel all night, not making a
sound." Of their unique sound Cash said that "it was unorthadox, the way we
worked it so that his guitar line matched my vocal". It was effective and
people liked it. Once the records started getting around, guitarists all
over the world began copying the Luther Perkins style, and he became a kind
of cult hero.
I love the story he retells about an episode during Cash's drug-dazed days -
"Luther was a very tolerant man in the usual course of things. My
amphetamine insanity was expressing itself in destructive acts. As I
chopped a new doorway through the wall between my room and Marshall Grant's
with a fire axe, Luther just sat and watched, grinning and saying, in a tone
of genuine wonderment, 'Well I'll be damned. I'll just be damned'".'
Luther played the boogie in the strangest kind of way.
©Shaun Mather, June 2002
Thanks to Jeff Evans for the above photographs
© Rockabilly Hall of Fame ®