The story of jazz pianist Carl Perkins is one of what might have been. Despite being born with polio, Carl Perkins through sheer courage and determination, forged a career as a jazz pianist. Although best known for his work with the Curtist Counce Quintet, Carl played on recordings by Illinois Jacquet, Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie, Pepper Adams, Clifford Brown and Max Roach. Sadly, Carl only ever released one solo album. This was 1955s Introducing, which was released on Dootsie Williams Dootone label. Introducing, which was recently released by Boplicity, an imprint of Ace Records, should’ve been the start of a long and successful career. It wasn’t. Two years after the release of his debut album Introducing, tragically, Carl Perkins died of a drug overdose. What should’ve been a long and illustrious career, which I’ll tell you about, was cut tragically short.
Carl Perkins was born in Indianapolis, Indiana in August 1928. Life wasn’t easy for Carl Perkins. He suffered from polio, which affected his left arm. Despite this, Carl chose to learn the piano. This didn’t stop Carl becoming one of the most underrated and dare I say, best bebop pianists. His ability to play quickly, fluidly and accurately, is breathtaking. That lead to Carl being one of the most in-demand pianists of the bebop era.
By 1945, aged seventeen, Carl Perkins had headed to Los Angeles, which was bebop central. Whether it was musicians, record labels or venues, Los Angeles was the place for bebop musicians. Carl was a disciple of Charlie Parker, one of bebop’s founding fathers, joined artists like Dexter Gordon, Charles Mingus and Chico Hamilton. For his first few years in Los Angeles, Carl made a living playing live. Then in 1949, Carl entered a studio for the first time.
During November 1949, Carl recorded thirteen tracks for the Savoy label. With drummer Herb Williams and bassist Edwin Perkins, Carl made his recording debut. Three of these tracks, Summertime, The Rosary and Smoke Gets In Your Eyes were released as singles. After this, Carl would be spending plenty of his time in the studio.
Quickly, Carl became one of the hottest bebop pianists of the fifties. Whether it was for concerts or recording sessions, anyone looking for a top pianist, hired Carl. One of Carl’s first albums as sideman, was playing on Illinois Jacquet’s album 1952 Collates. Then in 1954, Carl played on Oscar Moore’s eponymous album. That year, Carl became a member of Clifford Brown and Max Roach’s band and featured on their live album. The following year, would be one of the busiest of Carl’s career.
1955 saw Carl playing alongside some of the biggest names in jazz. Carl played on Dizzy Gillespie’s Jazz Recital and Dexter Gordon’s Dexter Play Hot and Cool. He also featured on Gene Norman Presents Frank Norman. Word was spreading of Carl Perkin’s skill. One man who experienced it first hand was Dootsie Williams.
Dootsie Williams’ career had started back in the thirties. He was a highly respected composer and musician, whose life was changed in 1954. That was when he penned Earth Angel, which gave The Penguins a huge hit single. This proved profitable for Dootsie who decided to form his own label Dootone. It released Dexter Gordon’s sophomore album Dexter Gordon’s Dexter Play Hot and Cool, which Carl played on. Realizing how talented a pianist Carl was, Dootsie signed him to his new label. Recording of Introducing took place during 1955 and 1956.
Introducing featured eleven tracks, which were show tunes, jazz standards and five tracks penned by Carl. He wrote Way Cross Town, Marblehead, Westside and Carl’s Blues. Carl cowrote Why Do I Care with Dootsie Williams. Other tracks included covers of You Don’t Know What Love Is, The Lady Is A Tramp, Just Friends, It Could Happen To You and Lilacs In The Rain. There’s also an interpretation of Dizzy Gilliespie’s Woodyn You. These tracks were released in 1956 as Introducing.
By the time Introducing was released in 1956 by Dootone, Carl was busier than ever. He was busy playing live and doing session work. During 1956, Carl played on The Curtis Counce Group Volume 1-Landslide and Chet Baker and Art Pepper’s Playboys. Sadly, Introducing didn’t make the impression people thought it would. It wasn’t a commercial success and for the final two years of his life, was happy being a sideman rather than bandleader. That’s a great shame. Introducing which I’ll tell you about could’ve and should’ve been the start of a long and successful career.
Opening Introducing is Way Cross Town, the first of four tracks Carl wrote himself. A jaunty, mid-tempo track, Carl seems comfortable within the trio. He takes centre-stage showcasing his versatility. Nimbly, his fingers fly across the keyboard, his playing veering between confident, dramatic and subtle. Later, the tempo increases. So does the drama. That’s when sidemen bassist Leroy Vinnegar and drummer Lawrence Marable get involved. They enjoy their moment in the sun, before the track reaches its dramatic high.
Carl’s playing on You Don’t Know What Love Is full of hurt and sadness. It’s as if sitting at the piano is cathartic. Exaggerated flourishes of piano reflect the highs, lows and drama of a relationship. While a wistful bass, reflects the hurt and loss, Carl almost pounds the piano. It becomes an outlet for his pain, on this emotive opus.
On Introducing, The Lady Is A Tramp is transformed. It’s played at breakneck speed. This allows Carl to showcase his trademark style. Quick, fluid and accurate, Carl throws himself into the track. Playing with emotion and passion, it’s as if he wants to pay a fitting homage to Rogers and Hart’s classic. This he does. There’s no doubt about this.
Somehow, Marblehead manages to be both pensive and optimistic at once. Carl’s playing is flamboyant as he explores the track’s subtleties and nuances. It’s as if he’s treating the sessions as an audition. Carl doesn’t just want to make a good impression, he’s determined to make a good impression. So he’s brought his A-game, just like he did on Dexter Blows Hot and Cool. He unleashes a series of spellbinding solos, where he’s forever the flamboyant showman.
Woodyn You is a track written by Dizzy Gillespie. It’s a Latin-tinged track. Clunky percussion joins the bass and drums, as the arrange cascades along. Soon, it’s all change. The tempo increases and the trio kick loose. Carl and bassist Leroy Vinnegar match each other every step of the way. Leroy’s playing is no frills, while Carl’s is the polar opposite. Ever the entertainer, Carl’s flamboyant style results in music that’s melodic and joyous.
Westside aka MIA bursts into life. What follows is two magical minutes of majestic music. There’s a sense of purpose in Carl’s playing. He’s confident, his playing veering between deliberate and dramatic to tender and subtle. Briefly, drummer Lawrence Marable gets the chance to showcase his skills. After that Carl somehow, manages to raise his game, surpassing his earlier efforts.
There’s no drop in tempo on Just Friends. Rolls of Lawrence’s drums set the scene for Carl’s solo. It’s one of his quickest and best. It’s best described as breathtaking. Carl’s fingers fly up and down the keyboard. He’s at one with the piano on another blistering example of bebop. Leroy’s bass struggles to keep up. Luckily, he manages to do so. Then with a minute to go, Leroy passes the baton to Lawrence. He unleashes a series of brief solos, before passing the baton to Carl’s who showboats his way through the rest of this mesmeric track.
Deliberate flourishes of piano open It Could Happen To You. That proves to be something of a curveball. What follows is a slow, thoughtful and beautiful solo from Carl. The bass and drums played with brushes, provide the heartbeat for this tale of hurt and heartbreak.]
Why Do I Care seems an ironic way to follow It Could Happen To You. It’s a devil-may-care response to the previous track. Best described as rakish and full of bravado, it’s one of the highlights of Introducing. It was written by Carl and Dootsie Williams. Carl’s piano playing might sound upbeat and hopeful, but deep down, is this a facade? What it is, is a reminder of jazz’s glory days.
Just like It Could Happen To You, Lilacs In The Rain features flourishes of piano that set the scene. What follows is Carl producing a soul baring solo. His bluesy playing tugs at your heartstrings. It truly is a thing of beauty. Again, it’s both a truly beautiful and heartbreaking reminder of the golden age of jazz.
Closing Introducing is Carl’s Blues. It has a much more bluesy sound than other tracks. Driven along by the bass, Carl’s playing veers between spacious to sharp and deliberate. Then all of sudden, he returns to his familiar style. He plays with confidence and more than a little flamboyance. It’s as if he’s pulling out all the stops. Later, blues and jazz become one as Carl unleashes what’s undoubtably the best track on Introducing until last.
Listening to Introducing, it’s tragic that that Introducing was the only album Carl Perkins ever released. He was a truly remarkable man. Born with polio, which affected his left arm, he worked out a way around what could’ve been a handicap. It wasn’t. Instead it was a challenge, one that had to be overcome. Not only did Carl Perkins overcome polio, but established a reputation as one of the greatest pianists of the bebop era.
Having moved to Los Angeles when he was just seventeen, he spent the next ten years as a working musician. Whether it was playing live or playing on recording sessions, Carl Perkins skills were always in demand. He played alongside some of the giants of jazz. Another man who recognized Carl’s skill was Dootsie Williams, owner of Dootone. When Carl played in Dexter Gordon’s Dexter Blows Hot and Cool, Dootsie saw how talented Carl Perkins was and signed him to Dootone. A year later, in 1956, Carl Perkins released Introducing which was recently released by Boplicity, an imprint of Ace Records. Introducing was a tantalizing taste of what Carl Perkins was capable of.
One of the best and most inventive players of the bebop era, Carl Perkins played with speed, accuracy, emotion and passion on Introducing. With just drums and bass accompanying him, Carl showcases his not inconsiderable skills. From the opening bars of Way Cross Town, right through to Carl’s Blues, Introducing is almost flawless. Sadly, it was the only album Carl Perkins released. Introducing wasn’t a commercial success. After its release, Carl settled back into his favored roll as sideman.
For the next two years, right through until his death in 1958, Carl Perkins was content to be a session musician. He recorded three albums with The Curtis Counce Group, plus albums with Art Pepper, Pepper Adams, Leroy Vinnegar, Harold Land and Inez Jones. Then in 1958, Carl Perkins tragically, died of a drug overdose. Like so many musicians, Carl Perkins dabbled with drugs. This cost him his life. That day in March 1958, jazz lost a musician who could’ve and should’ve become a legend of jazz. Sadly, that wasn’t to be. Instead, Carl Perkins’ musical legacy is just three singles and his 1956 album Introducing, an album that’s a case of what might have been. Standout Tracks: You Don’t Know What Love, It Could Happen To You, Lilacs In The Rain and Carl’s Blues.