Classic Music Review: Dance Album of Carl Perkins

Lp cover released 1957.

I knew my dad had the original vinyl version of Dance Album in his collection, so my partner and I decided to drop by one evening to see if listening to Carl Perkins in analog format would motivate us to kick off our pumps and trip the light fantastic. We love to dance together, both sexually and asexually . . . but the asexual dancing frequently turns sexual . . . let’s get on with the story.

As we walked down the hill to my parents’ place, I gave her some background about the featured performer. I explained that Carl Perkins was one of the early progenitors of rock, approaching the emerging genre from the country side and helping to popularize a hybrid form called rockabilly. As she had grown up in Madrid and had spent only a few years in the States, she hadn’t delved much into American culture and music and had never heard of rockabilly. “I like that word,” she said, and repeated it over and over again with a trilled “r” that made us both shake with laughter.

We were still laughing when we arrived at our destination, but managed to pull ourselves together after some wine and cigarettes. My dad had already taken the album from the shelf, and between sips, I spent some time poring over the cover, a cut-and-paste job to die for. I marveled at Carl’s decapitated noggin suspended eerily within the head of an eighth note. I smirked at the napless blue suede shoes bearing his first and last name, one name per shoe. I wondered whether the cloth patterns that filled the notes and the right side of the cover were herringbone, twill or Glen plaid, like you see in Pee Wee Hermans’ suits. My partner leaned over and asked if Carl’s hands were as monstrous as pictured in the performance caricature (they were—he cradled a Les Paul like I would handle a ukulele). As we lingered over the shifting positions of the dance pairs with their the accompanying motion lines, my still-adolescent father interrupted my reverie.

“Hey! That girl in the upper right is shooting beaver!” Dad pointed out with glee.

My partner pulled the cover close to her eyes and saw nothing but a dancing girl whirling in a skirt. “You tricked me! She doesn’t have a gun!”

My dad laughed and said, “I guess you never heard of shooting beaver. It’s an American slang term.”

“Why don’t you explain it to her, dad?” I suggested, a touch of malevolent anticipation in my voice.

Even though he knew he was talking to two perpetually horny bi chicks with no sense of shame, my veteran-of-the-free-love-movement father actually blushed. “Uh, shooting beaver is when a girl accidentally spreads her legs so you can see her underwear,” mumbled my father, wringing his hands in agony.

“I don’t understand—was that something important enough to give it a name?” my partner asked in genuine puzzlement.

“Well, yeah. When I was a kid, girls couldn’t wear skirts above the knee, so it was hard to get a peek down there.”

“And why would you want to do that—see underwear?”

“I don’t know, it was kind of an achievement,” my dad said, sheepishly.

“I see. I think I understand,” replied my partner, starting to put it all together. “And how many beavers did you shoot?” she asked.

“No, the girl shot the beaver, not the guy.”

“Oh, now I see. In this case, ‘shot’ means ‘giving someone a look-see’,” she surmised.

“Bingo. Hey! Why don’t you look it up—it’s got to be on the Internet by now.”

I pulled my iPad out of my purse and googled “shooting beaver.” Of the first ten results, nine were tips for hunters on how to blast those industrious little cuties into oblivion. The Urban Dictionary had what I was looking for, but the answer opened the door to another line of questioning.

shoot beaver
Of a girl or of a woman, to flash by spreading one’s thighs, while seated wearing a skirt or a dress, in such a way as to reveal one’s crotch or camel toe, whether on purpose or by accident.

If you really want to get a guy’s attention, shoot beaver. 

That chick behind us is shooting beaver. Take a look.

“Dad, what the fuck is a camel toe?”

“Huh? Haven’t heard of that one.”

I googled “camel toe.”

camel toe
When a woman’s pants are so tight, that the actually fabric comes into their beaver, creating the two-mounded image of a camel’s toe.
Oh man, her pants were on so tight, that I could see her camel toe.

Wikipedia provided pictures to demonstrate the likeness:

225px-Miss_Desiree_cameltoeCamelsfootforexceedinglyimportantarticle

“Shit, dad! You’ve ruined our sex life! Now every time we go down on each other we’re going to smell camels!”

My partner leaned over and semi-whispered for all to hear, “That’s why they make perfume—so we don’t smell the camels.”

We all had a good laugh, and by the time we got home that night she and I would forget all about the camels.

But that’s a whole ‘nother story. My dad played the album while we both waited for the music to tickle our camel toes to the point where we had to get up and dance. Using the Camel Toe Factor to evaluate Carl’s performance, I am pleased to report that Carl Perkins managed to inflate our camel toes 10 out of 12 times, a Camel Toe Rating of 83.3—a score that would easily win the “Rate-a-Record” segment on American Bandstand.

Translation: It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.

Carl Perkins is one of those guys who never got the credit he deserved. Although he wrote and introduced the world to “Blue Suede Shoes,” most people still identify the song with Elvis, ignoring the fact that Carl’s version outsold Elvis by a landslide. Three of his compositions—“Matchbox,” “Honey Don’t,” and “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby—are primarily associated with The Beatles, not Carl Perkins. Few people realize that when you listen to most of George Harrison’s solos during the Beatlemania phase from Please Please Me to Help!, you’re hearing someone doing his best to imitate Carl Perkins. He ran into some bad luck early in his career (a serious car accident removed him from the public eye just as he was ready to break out from the pack), and had some self-inflicted issues with booze that nearly took him out of action for good. Carl was a damned fine singer, and while his picking style wasn’t as melodic or fluid as a Chet Atkins, he knew how to make that guitar rock.

Just like its cover, the Dance Album of Carl Perkins was patched together in a hurry. Carl had decided to move from Sun to Columbia and Sam Phillips wanted to wring every last dollar out of the Carl Perkins material in his possession. Sam slapped together his favorite cuts from the vault and gave the collection a title that he hoped would resonate with the dance-crazy teens of the time. It didn’t, and the album languished in relative obscurity for decades until an expanded version hit the shelves in 2004. Although that deluxe edition adds “Pink Pedal Pushers,” one of my favorite Carl Perkins performances, I always prefer to review the original versions of albums to remain true to the historical record and to try to experience what listeners experienced during the original go-round.

I now ask you to join me and my gal, one dressed in pedal pushers and the other in capris, one with a pony tail and the other with a flip, our faces powdered with a Max Factor Creme Puff and our nails glowing in Revlon’s Frosted Pink Cloud, as the whole gang gathers around a 3-speed Majorette portable record player to rock out with Carl!

“Blue Suede Shoes”: We’re out of our chairs in seven seconds, as soon as Carl belts out “Now, go, cat, go!” The greatest rockabilly song of them all combines a butt-shaking boogie beat with the excitement of stop-time verses that end on a rising line with a blue note peak that lift you onto the dance floor and inspire you to show the gang what you’ve got. The pattern of freeze-shift-freeze-shift allows you to strike all sorts of inviting poses to give your adolescent lover the tingles in his torpedo and invoke deep feelings of envy from your gum-popping girlfriends. The decision to add an extra beat to the first few measures to increase the sense of anticipation makes the intro to “Blue Suede Shoes” the equivalent of perfectly-executed foreplay. God damn, what a great song!

Carl’s version combines rhythmic discipline with just the right amount of energy, and though “Blue Suede Shoes” gives a vocalist plenty of opportunities to overdo it, Carl gives his vocal just the right amount of gas. In contrast, Elvis’ version has always felt jittery to me, as if he let the song excite him too much. I don’t blame Elvis—if you’re a singer, “Blue Suede Shoes” is one of those songs you can’t wait to sing, and he probably felt like the guy who can’t wait for Saturday night and his hot date with the girl who’s been giving him wet dreams all week. By the time Saturday rolls around, all he’s got left is nervous energy and a whole lot of sticky underwear to explain to mom. I think the reason Carl’s version is so obviously superior is that the recording is essentially flash-frozen. He recorded “Blue Suede Shoes” two days after he wrote it, and nailed it on take two, giving the performance an astonishing immediacy and everlasting freshness.

“Blue Suede Shoes” not only rocks and rolls but offers keen insight into the fragile psychology of American youth. Carl wrote the song after witnessing a guy verbally abusing his date for accidentally planting a scuff mark on his prized blue suede shoes. According to his bio Go, Cat, Go!, he watched the scene with fascination: “Good gracious, a pretty little thing like that and all he can think about is his blue suede shoes.” “Blue Suede Shoes” mocks the distortion of identity in an other-directed, consumer-oriented society, pointing out the shallowness of a life obsessed with presentation. Back in the 50’s such behavior in teenagers would have been considered a passing phase that they would grow out of thanks to wise TV fathers like Jim Anderson and Ward Cleaver. Thirty or so years later, kids would start murdering other kids for their Air Jordans.

“Movie Magg”: Danceable, but only if you ignore the 2/4 beat and pretend it’s 4/4, allowing you to smooth out the rhythm so you can give your partner an elegant spin or two. The story is pure hillbilly, as Carl dreams all week of taking Maggie to the picture show if he can just get past her father and his double-barreled shotgun. Interestingly enough, he carries Maggie away on a horse instead of a DeSoto, narrowing the target demographic for this song to teenagers living in Kentucky,  Tennessee and West Virginia. “Movie Magg” does feature some of Carl’s most fluid picking—his solos tend to be more like enhanced rhythm guitar than virtuoso leads.

“Sure to Fall”: What the fuck happened to my dance party? What’s this White Christian People music doing on my dance album? Far more billy than rock-a, “Sure to Fall” falls firmly into the country category—so much so that The Beatles’ version on Live at the BBC doesn’t sound at all like The Beatles but like the first warm-up act on an off-night at the Grand Ole Opry. “That’s a real nice song you got there, Otis,” somehow seems like an appropriate response.

“Gone, Gone, Gone”: This song has been ransacked like an Egyptian tomb. Gene Vincent would borrow the opening “We-lllll” for “Be-Bop-a-Lula.” You can hear fragments of the guitar solo in several early George Harrison contributions. The feel and the subject matter—fat broads—are very reminiscent of Ray Davies’ “Skin and Bone.” “Gone, Gone, Gone” is a catchy blues based rocker with definite danceability, but it would not reach its potential for another thirty years when Carl Perkins performed it live with a couple of itinerant musicians named Clapton and Harrison. Watch this video and then try to tell me that old guys can’t get it up!

“Honey Don’t”: The Beatles’ version is pretty faithful to the original other than a few lyrical variations. The big difference is in the vocal—Carl’s voice is clearly more expressive than Ringo’s. In Carl’s version, you can visualize him, hands-on-hips, occasionally smacking his forehead in confused frustration as his wayward girl refuses to play by the rules. That’s right, baby! You get your ass out on a Saturday night and shake it ’till the cows come home! I love how Carl manages the guitar in this one, focusing his energies on the rocking rhythm instead of trying to pattern something after the melody.

“Only You”: The Platters’ version is the gold standard, but I think Carl’s version has more raw passion, making his expression of devotion more credible than Tony Williams’. My only criticism is that he plays it a bit too fast to make it a credible slow dance number. Whether you’re going tit-to-tit or pecker to camel toe, you need a slow, oozing rhythm so you can ease into those warm nooks and crannies.

“Tennessee”: Listen—I have no problem with a song that honors the musical offerings of the Volunteer State, for Tennessee has made significant contributions to music in several genres: country, rock, jazz, blues and bluegrass. Both Nashville and Memphis have been music meccas for decades (though this is less true with Memphis today). I do have two issues with “Tennessee,” though. First, Carl only sings about country music played in that “old hillbilly way,” entirely ignoring the Memphis side of the story. The second issue is a verse that is so out of place that it’s the musical equivalent spreading your legs for an eye exam. Prior to the appearance of this ghastly stanza, the lyrics are entirely focused on the musical wonders of the great state of Tennessee. There is nothing about the Great Smoky Mountains, nothing about Civil War battle sites, nothing about Andy Jackson’s Hermitage—nothing to indicate that the song is about the many delights awaiting the tourist who’s thinking about spending their next vacation in Tennessee. So it comes as a tremendous shock to the listener when Carl slips in the following verse:

They make bombs they say that can blow up our world dear
Well a country boy like me I will agree
But if all you folks out there will remember
They made the first atomic bomb in Tennessee

What the fuck? I can see the travel brochure now: “Come for our music but stay for the radiation!” As weird as this may seem, the mid-1950’s were a period of “nuclear optimism” when people believed that the atomic bomb would make all other weapons obsolete, that everything would be nuclear-powered and electricity for the home would be cost-free, that we could nuke our food to make it last longer, we could irrigate the deserts, drive nuclear-powered cars . . . holy fucking Jesus and Jemima, what were these people thinking? I’ll give Carl credit for capitalizing on a fad, but subtract 10 points for a complete lack of foresight.

“Right String Baby, But the Wrong Yo Yo”: Okay, read the title of this song and try to guess what it inspired me to do. Oh, shoot, you got it on the first guess! I researched the history of yo-yos! I learned all about translational and rotational kinetic energy, studied the different shapes and read about all the tricks you can do with a yo-yo. But the most fascinating tidbit I came across was that yo-yos were quite fashionable accessories for ladies in 18th century France! Just the thing I need to complete my look! An emerald green Duncan Imperial would highlight my emerald green eyes and make me completely irresistible! I mean, who on earth hasn’t been totally turned on by the sight of a woman doing “walk the dog” and “around the world?” Hubba hubba!

Back to the music, “Right String Baby, But the Wrong Yo-Yo” is a lively little number with long instrumental sections featuring some nice guitar work by Carl and a superb contribution from the stand-up bass. The arrangement is country-tinged and snappy, giving you lots of opportunity to strut your stuff on the dance floor or in the barn, as the case may be.

“Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby”: Carl reworked a song from the 30’s to create this gem about a guy who is riding high with the ladies. Enjoy it while you can, brother! We shall overcome! Carl uses the delayed stop-time technique he used in the opening verse of “Blue Suede Shoes,” and it works like a charm. He really gets things going with some vibrato bends in the second solo, clearly demonstrating the virtue of those big, beautiful hands. Again, the Beatles’ version is quite faithful to the original, and though George sings it with verve and excitement, Carl makes it sound like the broads are pounding on the window to the recording studio trying to get their hands on a piece of Perkins.

“Matchbox”: I’ve always felt that “Matchbox” was the best of the Beatles’ Carl Perkins covers because they performed it with ferocious intensity. The original is somewhat smoother but hardly lacking in intensity—shit, when you’ve got Jerry Lee Lewis on piano, your song is going to fucking rock! “Matchbox” has an unusual history, with fragments of similar lyrics found in songs by Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Billie Holiday. The story behind the Carl Perkins version is that he’d never heard the alternative versions before and that his father supplied him with some stray lyrics from those older songs to get his creative juices flowing. Since the greatest poet in the English language ripped off most of his material from Petrarch, we can give Carl Perkins the same consideration we give Slick Willie Shakespeare. As a dance song, “Matchbox” is an absolute boiler, two minutes of nonstop intensity as close to climax as you can get.

“Your True Love”: “Matchbox” is a killer song, but my partner and I picked this track as our favorite dance number on the album. The combination of the steady boogie beat (Jerry Lee on the 88’s!), the tight call-and-response vocals, the nice-and-easy harmonies and one of Carl’s most expressive and sexy vocals put “Your True Love” at the top of our list. The song also has more chord movement than the other songs on the album, making it a nice pick-me-up number. Incredibly, “Your True Love” was paired with “Matchbox” in one of the greatest 45’s in history . . . and only made it to #67. I guess all that radioactivity from those a-bomb tests must have fried a few brains.

“Boppin’ the Blues”: I was totally blown away when I watched an episode of Tex Ritter’s Dance Ranch Party and heard Tex introduce Carl by telling the audience “We’d like to vary from our western songs and bring the youngsters a little bit of be-boppin’ music.” Carl Perkins did be-bop? Huh? For me, “bop” and “be-bop” are jazz terms describing the anti-swing revolution driven by Charlie Parker—music that was purposely designed to discourage dancing. I had no idea that “boppin'” also meant “dancing to popular music.” So, to “bop the blues” means “to dance to blues music,” or at least blues-influenced music like rock ‘n’ roll or rockabilly.

My partner and I bopped the hell out of this one! It’s a 12-bar blues number with a kick, and Carl’s in full command of voice, Les Paul and his supporting cast, urging the boys on with “Bop, cats, bop!” The song features one of the early interventions from the medical profession, and in this song, just like in the Rascals’ “Good Lovin'” and many others, the doctor is as useless as tits on a nun:

Well, the doctor told me, Carl you need no pills.
Yes, the doctor told me, boy, you don’t need no pills.
Just a handful of nickels, the juke box will cure your ills.

But my favorite line in the whole song is “I must be rhythm-bound.” I’m thinking tattoo, folks . . . something with a guitar in bondage. I already have a tattoo on my ass, and while that may inspire my love interests, I don’t have anything on my body that inspires me. I am the essence of rhythm-bound!

Carl Perkins caught a lot of bad breaks in his life, but somehow the man kept rocking all the way up to his death. When you listen to Carl Perkins, you hear clearly how the music of different racial and cultural traditions can all come together—a hybrid form of music that turns simple chord patterns into magic. I don’t know if it’s psychologically possible to miss things that disappeared decades before you were born, but I miss the jukebox, the dance party and the primitive technology that could turn wax into sound. There is something about that less-complicated time that is terribly appealing when compared to the high-tech, high-stress, high-speed world of today. I’m quite aware that the 50’s were no picnic—America was a land of segregation and deep-seated racism, a powerful empire afflicted with communist paranoia, and completely dismissive of women who wanted to do anything but make babies and cakes. But beneath all that ugliness were some beautifully simple moments that centered around music—having your friends bring their 45’s over to share at an impromptu dance party, kids and parents trying to master the latest dance craze, or spending a whole afternoon at the record store because it was the coolest place in town. I only know about these things from stories handed down from my elders and from the historical record of the era, but I yearn for a life full of beautifully simple moments that I could take time to treasure.

The Dance Album of Carl Perkins is full of those moments—beautiful, simple and an absolute gas. Go, cats, go!

One response

  1. Great story.
    And the album cover is beyond cool.

    Like

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