Luther Perkins

Luther Perkins
Birth name Luther Monroe Perkins
Born (1928-01-08)January 8, 1928
Como, Mississippi, U.S.
Died August 5, 1968(1968-08-05) (aged 40)
Hendersonville, Tennessee, U.S.
Genres Country, rockabilly
Occupation(s) Musician
Instruments Guitar, baritone guitar
Years active 1954–1968
Associated acts Johnny Cash, Tennessee Two, Tennessee Three

Luther Monroe Perkins (January 8, 1928 – August 5, 1968) was an American country music guitarist and a member of the Tennessee Three, the backup band for singer Johnny Cash. Perkins was an iconic figure in what would become known as rockabilly music. His creatively simple, sparsely embellished, rhythmic use of Fender Esquire, Jazzmaster and Jaguar guitars is credited for creating Cash's signature "boom-chicka-boom" style.[1]

Early life and musical beginnings

Perkins was born in Como, Mississippi, the son of a Baptist preacher.[2] He grew up in Como, and taught himself to play rhythm guitar.

Perkins started his career in 1953 as a mechanic at Automobile Sales Company in Memphis. He specialized in electrical systems and radio repairs. Roy Cash, Sr., older brother of Johnny Cash, was service manager at the dealership. At the time, the younger Cash was stationed in Germany with the US Air Force. At Automobile Sales, Perkins met co-workers Marshall Grant and A.W. 'Red' Kernodle. Grant, Kernodle and Perkins began bringing their guitars to work, and would play together when repair business was slow.[3][4]

When Johnny Cash moved to Memphis after returning from Germany in 1954, Roy Cash introduced him to Grant, Kernodle and Perkins. The four began to get together in the evenings at Perkins' or Grant's home and play songs. It was during this time that they decided to form a band, with Grant acquiring a string bass, Kernodle a six-string steel guitar, and Perkins buying a somewhat-abused Fender Esquire electric guitar from the O.K. Houck Piano Co. in Memphis.[5] The guitar had been modified by a previous owner, and the volume and tone controls did not work.

"Boom-chicka-boom" style

Since he could not control the volume of the single-pickup instrument, Perkins began the practice of muting the three bass strings (E, A and D) with the heel of his right hand, much in the style of Merle Travis, and scratching a rhythm pattern (as heard on Sun Records recordings prior to 1958). This pattern developed into a more defined, varying 1/8-8/5/8-8 picking (with random syncopation) on later Sun recordings and for the rest of Perkins’ career.

In late 1954, when Cash got an audition with producer Sam Phillips at Sun Records, he brought Perkins, Grant and Kernodle along to back him instrumentally. The experience made Kernodle nervous, and he ended up leaving before the session was over, with Perkins and Grant providing the instrumentation.[6]

Perkins, as a member of the Tennessee Two (later, the Tennessee Three, with the addition of drummer W.S. "Fluke" Holland),[7] toured with Cash and appeared on most of his recordings. He was well known for his laconic, focused demeanor on stage. He was often the target of jokes by Cash, who would make comments such as "Luther's been dead for years, but he just doesn't know it".[8]

Perkins was Cash's lead guitarist on many of the popular Town Hall Party television appearances in the 1950s, often interacting with one another for stage effect and providing the signature "boom-chick-a-boom" background sound that came to define a large part of Johnny Cash's sound.[9] In his 1997 memoir Cash, the singer recalled, "Keith Richards came to one of our British shows, at a U.S. military base in the early '60s, but he wasn't interested in me; Luther was the one he couldn't wait to watch."[10]

Personal life

Perkins was married twice. He and his first wife, Bertie, separated while they were living in Southern California in 1959. Perkins had three daughters: Linda, Vickie, and Claudia. He later married Margie Higgins; Margie Higgins' niece Kathy lived with them.[11] Margie Perkins Beaver still appears at Johnny Cash reunion events.

His hobbies were knitting, fishing and guitar.

He was a close friend of singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson. At the time of his death, he was planning to open his own music publishing company and give Kristofferson his first break.[12]

Perkins’ younger brother, Thomas, was a successful rock ‘n’ roll singer in the 1950s and 1960s, under the name of Thomas Wayne.[13]

In his autobiography, Johnny Cash wrote that Perkins was mildly addicted to amphetamines. They started taking drugs together in the late 1950s.[12]

Perkins' nickname was "L.M", the initials of his first and second name "Luther Monroe".[2] Singer-guitarist Carl Perkins, who was also a member of Cash's touring show, was not related to Luther Perkins.[14]


During the early morning hours of August 3, 1968, Perkins returned from fishing on Old Hickory Lake to his newly constructed home on Riverwood Drive, Hendersonville, Tennessee. He apparently went to sleep in the living room while holding a lit cigarette. His niece by marriage awoke around 6:00 am to find the living room aflame and Perkins collapsed near the door, almost dead. An emergency crew rushed Perkins to Vanderbilt University Hospital, where he was kept under intensive care until he died two days later.[15]

He is buried near the graves of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash at Hendersonville Memorial Park in Hendersonville, Tennessee.[16]

Luther Perkins was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, as inductee #0230.[17]

In 1980, Perkins's daughters from his first marriage filed suit against Johnny Cash for embezzling funds that were to have provided retirement income for Perkins. This lawsuit was filed coincidentally with actions taken by the other founding Tennessee Three member, Marshall Grant, against Cash for wrongfully firing Grant and embezzlement of Grant's retirement funds. Both lawsuits were eventually settled out-of-court.[11]

Walk the Line

In Walk The Line, the 2005 biopic of Johnny Cash, Perkins is portrayed by Dan John Miller. Perkins's future death is alluded to in the film in a bus scene where Cash (played by Joaquin Phoenix) walks past a sleeping Perkins. Perkins is depicted as asleep with his cigarette still burning in his mouth. Cash stubs it out in the ashtray in front of him which foreshadows Perkins's eventual death.


  1. ^ Luther Perkins, Soundunwound: The Personal Music Encyclopedia, retrieved 2011-02-05
  2. ^ a b Miller, Stephen (2003), Johnny Cash: The Life of an American Icon, Omnibus Press, ISBN 978-1-84449-414-9
  3. ^ Top 40 Johnny Cash Moments,, retrieved 2011-02-05
  4. ^ Gilmore, Mikal (2008), Stories Done: Writings on the 1960s and its Discontents, Free Press, p. 187, ISBN 978-0-7432-8745-6
  5. ^ One of Rock 'n Roll's First Music Stores,, retrieved 2011-02-05
  6. ^ Johnny Cash InfoCenter, archived from the original on 2016-03-03, retrieved 2011-02-05
  7. ^ W.S."Fluke" Holland-Father of the Drums, retrieved 2010-02-05
  8. ^ Luther Played The Boogie, Rockabilly Hall of Fame, retrieved 2011-02-05
  9. ^
  10. ^ Cash, Johnny; Carr, Patrick 1997, p. 149.
  11. ^ a b Grant, Marshall & Zar, Chris (2006), I Was There When It Happened - My Life With Johnny Cash, Cumberland House, ISBN 978-1-58182-510-7
  12. ^ a b Cash, Johnny; Carr, Patrick (1998), Cash: The Autobiography, Harper, ISBN 978-0-06-101357-7
  13. ^ Thomas Wayne Perkins, So Many Records, So Little Time, retrieved 2011-02-06
  14. ^ Cash, Johnny (1975), Man In Black, Zondervan, ISBN 978-0-310-22322-1
  15. ^ Luther Perkins, Tripatlas, archived from the original on 2012-07-21, retrieved 2011-02-05
  16. ^, retrieved 2011-02-05
  17. ^ Rockabilly Hall of Fame Inductees, Rockabilly Hall of Fame, retrieved 2011-02-05

External links