If rock ’n’ roll is, as some suggest, the illegitimate offspring of hillbilly and R&B, Stanton Littlejohn’s recordings demonstrate that Perkins was well ahead of the commercial curve. These tunes are probably better known now as standards from Sun Records’s grittiest early rockabilly recordings. Sun had taken root in the fertile soil of Memphis, Tennessee, where the company’s founder and producer Sam Phillips recorded an incredible roster of regional blues artists. The immediate success of Elvis Presley—a white country performer with a blues-inflected sound—drastically altered the company’s course. “Good Rockin’ Tonight” was, of course, Elvis Presley’s second Sun single. “Wine” is probably most identified with Jerry Lee Lewis as a mainstay of his live shows dating back to his earliest days as a performer. Both tunes remain stock selections for many contemporary rockabilly and other roots music artists.10
The music was alive and well long before there was a Sun Records or a national appetite for rock ’n’ roll. Rock ’n’ roll was alive in the blues. It was alive in country. It was alive in men like Carl Perkins who didn’t care much about making such distinctions.
If the rooster on Sun’s now familiar yellow label was meant to evoke authentic rustic origins, what Littlejohn captured feels like the unadulterated item. And it was much more than that. The ease with which rural artists blended black and white styles was no revelation in itself—certainly not to southern musicians and audiences who were accustomed to such practices. But Perkins’s unapologetic, driving delivery of R&B tunes in a hillbilly style evinced a greater degree of black influence in the postwar generation than his elders might have imagined. The list of Sun artists and the astonishing sonic legacy Sam Phillips bequeathed to posterity speak for themselves, but narratives that cast him and Elvis Presley in the role of rock’s progenitors are not only reductive; they fail to recognize something vital about the musical milieu in which they did their best work. The music was alive and well long before there was a Sun Records or a national appetite for rock ’n’ roll. Rock ’n’ roll was alive in the blues. It was alive in country. It was alive in men like Carl Perkins who didn’t care much about making such distinctions.11