George Harrison is often overlooked for the great guitarist he was. From the high-energy jingle-jangle pop he created with his 12-string Rickenbacker, to the complex, finely-crafted work that introduced the rock world to far-away sounds, he was the consummate musician. And he never showed off. Today I’d like to honor George on what would have been his 72nd birthday by taking a look at one of his early influences.
That’s an impromptu shout-out from Ringo in the middle of “Honey Don’t,” the Carl Perkins song he sang on the “Beatles For Sale” album. He’s cuing George Harrison to cut loose with his bridge solo, which the Beatle delivered in a style almost identical to that of Carl on the original recording.
All of The Beatles loved Carl and his infectious beat. During their journeymen days in Hamburg, their set lists grew to include as many as 12 Perkins songs, three of which featured George on lead vocals. In fact, one of the highlights of their early gigs included George in the spotlight, singing the Carl classic, “Everybody’s Trying to be My Baby.” It was so popular with fans that The Beatles chose it as the all-important closing track on “Beatles For Sale” (called “Beatles ’65” in the U.S.) Add “Matchbox” to the aforementioned Perkins songs, and you realize that the Fab Four recorded more of his numbers than those of any other artist.
George wanted to emulate the Rockabilly King right from the start. He taught himself to play guitar by listening to Carl’s records. When, on a lark, all of the Beatles took on pseudonyms during a tour of Scotland in 1960, George named himself Carl Harrison.
He worked hard to perfect Carl’s style. When Mr. Perkins was invited to attend a Beatles post-show party in London in May of 1964, George had the guts to walk up to his idol and ask him to reveal the correct key for “Honey Don’t.” When Carl said he’d written it in the key of E, George immediately turned to John Lennon and said, “I told you we weren’t doing it right!”
George remained a lifelong fan and friend of the sharecropper’s son from Tennessee. On October 21, 1985, The Beatle made his first public appearance as a musician in more than ten years when he took part in a televised London concert called “Carl Perkins and Friends: Blue Suede Shoes — A Rockabilly Session.” He, along with Ringo, Eric Clapton, and Dave Edmunds, had the time of their lives jamming with Carl. A DVD of the show is available on Amazon, and I highly recommend it.
When Carl passed away on January 19, 1998, George was there to pay tribute to his friend and mentor. In a May 2001 Forbes magazine interview, Carl’s son Stan said, “George Harrison chartered a jet to come to my Dad’s funeral…He told me, ‘If it hadn’t been for your Dad, I don’t know that I would have ever even picked up a guitar.’ That solo on ‘Can’t Buy Me Love—’ that’s Daddy, start to finish.”
Stan said that once during a Beatles performance in St. Louis in the mid-1960s, George rented a car and decided to drive south to visit his dad!
“Now here’s a 21-year-old Englishman driving an American-made car, probably on the wrong side of the road – I can just picture it – in search of Carl Perkins,” Stan told Forbes magazine. “He never did get to Jackson. He went a while and then turned around.”
Now that’s what I call a true fan. Actually, George Harrison was more than just a fan…he was a disciple. Here was a young English boy who reached deep into the American south to embrace an artist whose sound and style would become an indispensable part of the rich, timeless tapestry called Beatle music. And the world is all the richer for it.
At last year’s “Relive the Beatles ’64” show featuring the tribute band Beatlemania Now, I included tribute artists who represented the musicians that influenced The Beatles, such as Little Richard and Chuck Berry. I’m still searching for the perfect Carl Perkins tribute act, and hope to feature him in the future. You can click here to buy tickets for my September 19 Beatles tribute concert. And, you can read stories about my 50 years as a concert promoter by buying my book “Hard Days Hard Nights.” Click here to order it from Amazon.
Click here to read an article about the universal appeal of Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes,” and listen to some unusual cover versions. It’s from The Hip Quotient, a blog by Pittsburgh music writer Dana Spiardi.
Here’s George on stage with Carl in 1985, performing a classic tune.
And, we’ll say goodnight to George with this sweet little song by Joe Brown.