Today we’ll hail one of the great seminal rock’n’roll classics of all time. “Blue Suede Shoes” may be more famous by Elvis Presley, since it leads off his landmark debut LP, but the original recording was by Carl Perkins, at Sun Studios, and it was the first Country song to cross over to R&B and pop charts and do as well on all three.
I can’t say that I would have made much distinction between the two performers of the song (and many others recorded it) based on my own recollections. Certainly I’d heard both Elvis and Perkins. But not too long ago a collection of Sun Studio singles came my way and Perkins’ version is on there and, hearing it recently, I decided it needed its post.
What to say about Carl Perkins: he’s the guy who put the rock into rockabilly. The song is also more or less a formula for rockin’ attitudes, from its famous count-off—“Now it’s one for the money / Two for the show / Three to get ready / And go, cat, go”—to its off-repeated line “don't step on my blue suede shoes” it manifests the proud peacock aspects of life. Stepping out in style, and jumping in on the beat.
Rock’n’roll was always about fashion, to some extent. There have always been costumes and hairstyles, suits and boots, to help sell its fascination. And it may have ended as only a fashion, a fad, but it caught on and stayed the course, mostly. Or so far it has done so, though with fallow periods and periods when youth—who were always its staunch supporters—chose to look elsewhere for the thrills once found therein. Perkins, way back in 1956, makes it all sound so exciting, and that’s because the song still proclaims its Country origins, played faster but still present. And that speediness, that jumpy quality, is what makes it feel alive and full of beans.
Perkins plays it like it’s a statement of humorous intent. It’s not that he doesn’t mean it, it’s that the idea of someone stepping on his blue suede shoes—dampening his spirits when he wants to party—would be ludicrous. Presley’s version is boppier and I think he puts less into the lyric than Perkins does, gets less of its cool cat vibe. Which may be a tough call, since Elvis was a king of cool, but, still. There it is. Perkins, to me, has more rockabilly cred on this one, and the song needs it. And I can’t help thinking of the Japanese kid in Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train (1989), drawling out the name “Carrrrlrrr Parrrrkinses,” touting him above his girfriend’s worship of Elvis.
The injustices that the song contemplates—and invoked very much in a similar spirit in The Grateful Dead’s “U.S. Blues”—are instructive: “You can knock me down / Step on my face / Slander my name / All over the place.” Getting knocked about in the press comes with the rockin’ territory. It’s almost a “turn the other cheek” attitude except that the threat about stepping on the blue suedes might go beyond being ostracized from Coolness. “Burn my house / Steal my car / Drink my liquor / From an old fruit-jar,” yeah, strip me of my possessions, who cares? All that matters is them blue suede shoes, the badge of honor, we might say, certainly the fetish of identity and status and self-worth.
Do anything that you want to do, but, uh-uh, honey, lay off them shoes. Some things are too precious to be bandied about. Rock'n'roll not least.