Luther played the boogie

When Roy Cash introduced his appliance selling, younger brother, Johnny, to a couple of colleagues at the Automobile Sales garage in Memphis, the unlikeliest band in rock history was formed. Bass player, Marshall Grant and guitarist, Luther Monroe Perkins became the Tennessee Two and with the twitching genius of Johnny Cash fronting them, they cut their teeth playing local picnics, church socials and the like before getting the nerve to audition for Sun records owner Sam Phillips.

All three were limited in their musical abilities and Cash's vocal range didn't exactly get the needles on the sound board working overtime. Cash all but apologized to Sam for their inadequacies, but Sam pulled a master stroke by emphasizing the groups sparseness, introducing the world to the world's only boom-chicka-boom band.

They learnt their trade playing every school house and cat house in Dixieland, travelling In Johnny's 1954 Plymouth with the nig doghouse bass strapped to the roof. Their sound rarely changed over the years, it just got tighter.

To me, the song that sums up Luther's playing, is the guitar break on the Get Rhythm. The fist part is superb, all jangly and hypnotic, whereas on the second part of the solo, it's single string plonking that sounds like he's going to miss the next note. The overall result is perfect. I also love his intro to Home Of The Blues. It's simple, but it gives the feeling that he's walking down the street to the home of the blues, side by side with Johnny.

The new Johnny Cash at the Town Hall Party DVD on Bear Family shows Luther and all his idiosyncrasies, plucking away with all the concentration he can muster. Johnny even tells the crowd that Luther's been dead for a couple of years but just doesn't know it yet.

In November 1957 Jamboree acknowledged the groups sound when they voted The Tennessee Two the "Best New Instrumental Group". Even when Jack Clement sweetened the sound with the addition of backing vocals in '58, they still wisely chose to retain the sparse backing with Johnny's rhythm and Luther's picking, there was no need for pianos and saxes.

A weird session on 25th October 1959 saw Johnny's nephew Roy Cash Jr. cut a couple of songs as Roy Rivers whilst Johnny himself cut I Got Stripes and Five Feet High And Rising in German. Two instrumentals were also cut, both profiling Luther's guitar, the up-tempo Bandana and a pleasant take on the old slowie, Wabash Blues. The two sides were issued on Columbia as The Tennessee Two And Friend, but failed to give Duane Eddy a run for his money.

As the 60's wore on and the band was augmented by the guitar work of Carl Perkins, Luther and Carl formed a tight ensemble, perfectly demonstrated on the newly enhanced CD, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. Unfortunately, it was to be Luther's last significant role as he perished in a house fire in August 1968. He fell asleep with a lighted cigarette in his hand and died a couple of days later without ever regaining consciousness. He is buried at Woodlawn East Memorial Park in Hendersonville, Tennessee.

Such was Johnny's love for the man that he continued to send his widow Luther's pay cheque for six months after his death. Carl Perkins took over Luther's duties until the arrival of Bob Wootten, a Tulsa, Oklahoma native who'd studied the licks of Luther note for note.

In his autobiography Cash (1997 with Patrick Carr), Johnny Cash remembered Luther as "a gracious man, about five years older than me. He was a good driver, and he enjoyed it; he'd stay up at the wheel all night, not making a sound." Of their unique sound Cash said that "it was unorthadox, the way we worked it so that his guitar line matched my vocal". It was effective and people liked it. Once the records started getting around, guitarists all over the world began copying the Luther Perkins style, and he became a kind of cult hero.

I love the story he retells about an episode during Cash's drug-dazed days - "Luther was a very tolerant man in the usual course of things. My amphetamine insanity was expressing itself in destructive acts. As I chopped a new doorway through the wall between my room and Marshall Grant's with a fire axe, Luther just sat and watched, grinning and saying, in a tone of genuine wonderment, 'Well I'll be damned. I'll just be damned'".'

Luther played the boogie in the strangest kind of way.

©Shaun Mather, June 2002

Thanks to Jeff Evans for the above photographs

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