In the annals of rock history, it was the closest thing to a summit conference. The year was 1956. On Dec. 4 Carl Perkins, already an established star, was recording in the Memphis studios of producer Sam Phillips’ Sun Records. A flamboyant newcomer named Jerry Lee Lewis was rehearsing next door. Then a young Johnny Cash happened by, and so did Elvis Presley, fresh from his tumultuous second appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Before they knew it, the foursome were jamming on such holy rock ‘n’ rollers as Peace in the Valley and Blessed Jesus Hold My Hand. The scratchy tape Phillips made of that session was never released in the U.S., but it turned up as a bootleg album in Europe in 1980. The boys never performed together again.
Then last April, after 25 years, the quartet’s three living members found their lives fatefully intersecting. Cash, 50, Lewis, 46, and Perkins, 49, all performed, solo, at a country music festival in Rotterdam, Holland. The trio got together in a motel room after the show to reminisce. Two days later Lewis and Perkins were surprise walk-ons at a Cash concert in Stuttgart, West Germany. “The roof went off,” Cash grins. Last month they made their U.S. debut together in Madison, Wis., and next month they win issue a live LP called—what else?—The Survivors.
The one who didn’t survive, of course, was Elvis. “Elvis was a victim of his own success,” Perkins reflects. “He had a little too much. But thank God for him. The world attention that came upon him so fast opened the door for most all of us.”
The survival of the others was often in question. Cash’s hard-living days landed him in jail in 1965 for possession of illegal drugs, and he lived for years on pills and liquor. Jerry Lee caused a scandal in 1958 when he married his 13-year-old second cousin; the often-divorced Lewis later lost two children in accidents and almost died himself last summer of a ruptured stomach. Perkins, who never duplicated his hit with Blue Suede Shoes, sees “a kind of parallel in all three of our lives. I have lost a couple of brothers, I have had bad accidents and wrecks. But I think there is a lot of admiration between all of us. I feel that way about Cash, and I am sure that John feels that way about me, and we feel that way about Jerry Lee.” When Jerry Lee almost died in the hospital, both Cash and Perkins were in the waiting room.
Today all three are relatively sobersided and have returned to their original country genre. Cash has mellowed and is a committed Christian. Lewis says that after his medical scare, “It didn’t take me long to straighten out. Yes, I cut up and carry on, but I am grateful I am alive.” Perkins maintains: “I survived by dropping the bottle 12 years ago. I put my priorities where I think they should be. I took a good look at the things the good Lord blessed me with: my woman, my children, my friends and my home.” Perkins incidentally will appear on a duet with Paul McCartney on the ex-Beatle’s forthcoming solo album.
The boys are already talking about more joint gigs and possibly another LP if Survivors survives in the marketplace. All of them still marvel at the phenomenon they witnessed at the creation more than a quarter century ago. “We were enjoying what we were doing, and we knew that what we were playing was new,” Perkins reflects. “But I don’t think any of us expected that the songs we were writing or the music we were making would lead to something that would last this long.”