Blue suede shoes were a luxury item in the South, a stylish footwear for a night out. You had to be careful with them, however, since suede isn't easy to clean.
Perkins never owned a pair, but Johnny Cash told him a story about someone who did. As Cash told it, he and Perkins were performing at a show in Amory, Mississippi along with Elvis Presley. When Presley was on stage, Cash told Perkins a story from his days serving in the Air Force in Germany. Cash's sergeant, a black guy named C.V. White, would wear his military best when he was allowed off base, and at one point said to Johnny, "don't step on my blue suede shoes." The shoes were really just Air Force-issued black, but white would say, "Tonight they're blue suede."
The story Perkins told is that later on, he was playing at a high school sorority dance when he came across a guy who wasn't paying much attention to his date, but kept telling everyone not to stop on his "suedes," meaning his blues suede shoes. At 3:00 a.m. that night, Perkins woke up and wrote the lyrics based on what happened that night and the story he heard from Cash. He couldn't find any paper, so he wrote it on a potato sack.
Perkins recorded this in Memphis for Sam Phillips at Sun Records. As he was driving to make his first national appearance to promote it (on the Perry Como Show), he got into an accident that seriously injured him and killed his brother. "I was 85 miles away from being the first rockabilly on national television," he recalled.
Perkins never fully recovered, either emotionally or career-wise. With Perkins unable to touring and promote it, Elvis' cover version became a massive hit. Presley's copy was done at RCA studios in Nashville. (thanks, Gary - Thetford, England)
Sam Phillips discovered Elvis Presley but sold his contract to RCA for $35,000. The money helped Phillips finance this and other records by artists like Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison, but Elvis became The King. Elvis recorded this later in 1956. His version hit US #20 and UK #9.
This was the only Top 40 hit for Perkins on the Pop charts, but his influence reaches much further. He was extremely influential to other artists, including Elvis, The Beatles, and Johnny Cash. Perkins was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
The lyrics describe some of the things that Perkins would prefer over getting his shoes scuffed, and the list includes some derelict behavior: stepping on his face, stealing his car, burning down his house and drinking his liquor. Some in the Sinatra-loving older generation were horrified, and used the song to back their case that rock 'n' roll was the Devil's music.
This was the first song to hit the US Pop, Country, and R&B charts at the same time. Released on January 1, 1956, the song made a slow climb up the charts, appearing on all three in May, which is when it reached its peak of #2 on the Pop charts.
Perkins based the beginning of this song on a nursery rhyme: "One for the money, two for the show, three to get ready and four to go."
Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records, came up with the idea of changing the line "Go, man, go" to "Go, cat, go." He thought the change would make it seem like less of a country song and more of a rocker.
The B-side of the single was "Honey Don't
," which was covered by The Beatles.
This song was a family affair: Perkins' brother Jay played rhythm guitar on the track, and his other brother Clayton played bass (W.S. "Fluke" Holland was Perkins' drummer). Jay died from a brain tumor in 1957, and Clayton took his own life in 1974.
The "better not step on my shoes" trope found its way back to the zeitgeist when Spike Lee included a scene in his 1989 movie Do The Right Thing
where a character gets very upset when someone steps on his Air Jordan sneakers
Perkins, backed by Lee Rocker and Slim Jim Phantom of The Stray Cats, recorded a new version of this song in 1985 for the soundtrack of the movie Porky's Revenge!
The soundtrack was produced by Dave Edmunds, who also got Willie Nelson, Jeff Beck and George Harrison to record songs for it, leading to a gaping disparity in quality between the film and the soundtrack.
Later in the year, Edmunds spearheaded the "Carl Perkins and Friends" concert special, recorded October 21 in London and aired January 1, 1986 on Cinemax. Harrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton and Rosanne Cash
were among the "friends."
The Count performed this song on an episode of Sesame Street. It became a counting exercise (one, two, Blue Suede Shoes).