CARL PERKINS - MUCH TOO EARLY IN THE GROOVEYARD


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The first problem for this young black West Coast pianist is that too many people confuse him with a white “rockabilly”singer and guitarist, composer of Blue suede shoes (the Elvis Presley hit), whose name was also Carl Perkins.

 The second problem is that, even where there is no such confusion of identity, hardly anybody (certainly none of the youthful jazz pianists I have spoken to) seems to have heard of him.

 Well he is an obscure figure who recorded comparatively little and who died in 1958 at the tragically young age of 29, having succumbed to the heroin addiction which bedevilled jazz musicians on the West Coast throughout the 1950s.

 I write about him now in the hope that those visiting my website may be encouraged to get to know his playing.

He has always been one of my very favourite pianists. I love his relaxed swing. Leroy Vinnegar said Carl, with his infectious time feel, was the dream pianist for a bass player to work with.

I love his chords and his voicings which are instantly recognisable.

That he has a unique style is probably down to the fact that his left arm withered with polio as a child and photographs of him seated at the piano show that he plays with his left arm parallel to the keyboard. He played two- or three-note chords with his undersize left hand and played low bass notes with his elbow!

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 [This cruel physical impediment strikes me as being the macabre converse, or mirror-image, of pianist Horace Parlan’s affliction. Horace was another childhood polio victim but in his case it was his right hand which was crippled, leaving only the thumb and little finger normal, the middle fingers being awkwardly splayed out. Which led to another utterly unique piano style by which he would cross hands and play upper register flurries with his left hand while the stricken right hand comped with restricted chords.]

Being an incorrigible record collector, I have poured over Carl’s meagre discography and acquired almost all his performances, except his very earliest, which were only ever issued on 78rpm by Savoy in the late 1940s.

Some readers may remember that Chris Barber, on a trip to the States, once discovered a hidden cache of surviving brand new be-bop 78s by Bird and other be-boppers. These were shipped to England and found their way to the basement of Ray Smith’s jazz record shop on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue, where the precious hoard was stashed and catalogued. I once held in my hand there a 78 (Savoy 722) of Carl Perkins on solo piano playing Ave Maria (A side) and The Rosary (B side). Ray only wanted 4 quid for it but for some unaccountable reason (perhaps I fainted or something) I failed to buy it!! If anyone can supply me with this disc or even a cassette or CD copy of it, they will get a massive reward both from me in this life and from my celestial governor in the next……………………..

In 1953/4, Carl was part of the Oscar Moore (guitar) trio and in 1954 briefly joined the Max Roach/Clifford Brown quintet. He didn’t stay long, apparently commenting that he didn’t share Max’s penchant for break-neck tempos. I imagine the problems with his left arm were a factor.

In 1955, he recorded for the obscure Dootone label with Dexter Gordon (Dexter blows hot and cool) and under his own name (Introducing Carl Perkins). This latter is available in CD form and is highly recommended.

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 Although Carl played quite a bit with Art Pepper (including making the legendary Omega tapes also reissued on CD), he is best remembered for his membership up until his untimely death of the Curtis Counce quintet. Check out You get more bounce with Curtis Counce (Contemporary label LP and CD) – not only for the wonderful music but for the hilarious, politically incorrect sleeve cover – involving breasts and stethoscopes………………

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 I have played with two former members of this amazing band – tenorist Harold Land and trumpeter Rolf Ericson – and eagerly pumped them both for anecdotes about Carl Perkins but they were sadly non-committal and unforthcoming.

Carl didn’t write much (mostly throw-away blues or Rhythm heads) but he did write the haunting Grooveyard which is still played widely although hardly anybody appreciates who wrote it. It’s a haunting line which sets out from the Ebm7/Ab7 vamp on which the first 4 bars are based. I have added to my “music” page this week a version of Grooveyard played by my quartet in 1985 featuring Geoff Simkins (alto) and the late, great Colin Purbrook (piano).

Carl Perkins, tragic young genius, deserving of much wider recognition and praise, +may you rest in peace.

 

 

 





Spike Wells