Picture yourself on a boat on a river "
Now that you've participated in that little exercise, go back a step and picture yourself on a boat on a river in a world where you don't know the rest of that famous lyric by heart. Paul McCartney once said that without the inspiration of rockabilly pioneer and Sun recording artist Carl Perkins, there never would have been a band called the Beatles. That means no "Hey Jude." No Peter Max cartoons of Pepperland. No "bigger than Jesus" controversy. Maybe even no Stones. Who can say? Imagine how many bands never would have played a chord had the Fab Four not inspired them into being, and perhaps you can understand why Carl Perkins, a hard-luck sharecropper from Jackson, Tennessee, with only one Top 40 hit to his name, holds such a high place in the rock-and-roll pantheon. Marrying hot hillbilly picking with nasty, nasty blues, Perkins was the total package: a soulful singer, an intense musician, and a rock-and-roll poet who wrote his own songs. His musical legacy includes such standards as "Daddy Sang Bass," "Honey Don't," and the rockabilly masterpiece, "Blue Suede Shoes." As part of the 2003 Rockabilly Fest, from Friday August 8th to Sunday, August 10th, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in Jackson will salute their favorite musical son by unveiling an eight-foot portrait of Perkins at the Sun Record Company Awards Party on Thursday, August 7th. The hall of fame will also unveil larger-than-life portraits of Elvis and the Sun King himself, Sam Phillips, whose death recently has been mourned around the globe. All three portraits are by Jackson-based artist Lendon Noe.
The musical lineup for this year's festival ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous. The original Comets, Bill Haley's clock-rocking band who were performing live in the studio on that fateful night when hipster deejay Alan Freed coined the term rock-and-roll, are the show's headliners. At the opposite end of the spectrum are performers like Amy Beth, a female Elvis impersonator who claims to have a psychic link with Elvis that allows her to channel his actual voice. But music fans who, in the wake of Sam Phillips' passing, want to soak up a little of that classic Sun Records mojo sans Elvis kitsch, will want to catch artists like Ace Cannon, the godfather of the rock-and-roll saxophone, and the certifiably great W.S. "Fluke" Holland, who played drums on Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" and on the Million Dollar Quartet sessions before joining Johnny Cash's band the Tennessee Three. Sun artist Narvel Felts, who had his greatest success in 1975 with the hit "Somebody Hold Me," will be on hand, as will Sonny Burgess, one of the wildest hillbilly rockers of them all.
According to one autobiographical account of Felts' first recording session for Phillips, Roy Orbison was sitting in the control room, Johnny Cash was just hanging out watching, Conway Twitty was sitting in a chair close to the microphone listening to every note, and Jerry Lee Lewis was chowing down in the diner next door. Talk about playing under pressure.
Phillips once called Ace Cannon "the greatest saxophone player who ever lived." That should be recommendation enough. Before breaking out with his solo hit, "Tuff," in 1962, Cannon was a Sun artist recording his own material and playing on countless sessions. He also blew for the Bill Black Combo, the honking instrumental group led by Elvis' famously charismatic bassman whose onstage antics set the standard for rockabilly.
But of all the vintage acts performing in Jackson this weekend, a minor Sun recording artist named Sonny Burgess is the one not to miss. Burgess didn't get his big break until the late 1950s, and by then the rockabilly craze was nearly over. Although his star never rose to the heights of predecessors like Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, it wasn't due to a lack of talent, energy, or flamboyance. Burgess was punk when Sid Vicious was still a zygote. When teen idol Ricky Nelson stole his thunder by releasing a copycat recording of "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It," Burgess claimed, "[Nelson] turned beer into milk." The Arkansas maniac dyed his greasy shock of hair a shocking shade of red to match his blazer and guitar. His band the Pacers put on wildly aggressive shows, leaping into the audience and smashing their instruments on stage. Their most famous move was to form a human pyramid on top of the bass without ever missing a beat. Today, Burgess plays with the Sun Rhythm Section, a geriatric supergroup including the incomparable Paul Burlison (accidental inventor of fuzz guitar) and Elvis' drummer D.J. Fontana.
Elvis is gone. Carl is gone. Charlie Rich is gone, and so is Charlie Feathers. Johnny Cash isn't getting around too well these days, and Jerry Lee has slowed way down. The rockabilly era is grinding to a halt, but if you're up for a drive to Jackson this weekend, you can still catch some swinging echoes from rock's Big Bang. n
The Sun Record Company Awards Party is Thursday, August 7th, at the Garden Plaza Hotel, Jackson, Tennessee.
Call (731) 423-5440. The 2003 Rockabilly Fest will be held at the Carl Perkins Civic Center in Jackson. Call (731) 423-5440 or check out RockabillyHall.org for ticket information.