Carl Perkins and Junior Wells: Southern Knights
On Jan. 15, in Chicago, blues harpist Junior Wells, 63, died of complications from lymphoma. Four days later, in Nashville, rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins, 65, succumbed to complications from recent strokes, his body already weakened by bouts with lung and throat cancer and alcoholism.
Although the timing was coincidental, these two rock trailblazers did lead uncannily parallel musical lives. Both grew up in Tennessee; both spent the ’50s hot-wiring two styles of American roots music — country and blues — that resulted in, respectively, the birth of rockabilly and electric blues. Both had signature songs (Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Honey Don’t,” Wells’ “Hoodoo Man Blues” and “Messin’ With the Kid”) and the admiration of their successors. Perkins’ songs were covered by everyone from the Beatles to the Judds; Wells, both on his own and with his longtime partner, guitarist Buddy Guy, recorded with Bonnie Raitt and Eric Clapton and toured with the Rolling Stones. That respect continued to bolster both men’s careers: Perkins’ 1996 Go Cat Go! album featured Paul McCartney, John Fogerty, and Paul Simon; Wells has a role in the upcoming Blues Brothers 2000, thanks to stalwart blues supporter Dan Aykroyd.
Sadly, what also links both Perkins and Wells is the sense — similar to the one occasioned by last year’s passing of Jimmy Stewart — that our living links to the past are slowly disappearing. (Say a little prayer for the ailing Johnny Cash.) From here on in, the only way to hear music that helped create and inspire rock & roll will be to crank up essential albums like Perkins’ Original Sun Greatest Hits and Wells’ Hoodoo Man Blues. Go, cats, go.