In early 1955, 27-year-old Memphis guitarist Luther Perkins was working as an auto mechanic when he and bass player Marshall Grant became Johnny Cash's band musicians The Tennessee Two (initially Tennessee Three until steel guitarist A.W. "Red" Kernodle got cold feet and bailed). The sound wrought by Cash and the duo was straighforwardly simple and effective, Perkins' pickin' a prominent part of the all-guitar act. When "Cry! Cry! Cry!" became Cash's first hit that year on the Sun label, they were set for a long run, staying with the same successful formula until Columbia Records lured Johnny away in 1958. One of the group's recordings, "Luther Played the Boogie," was an autobiographical narrative of sorts, focusing on the picker's specialty (' didn't Luther play the boogie strange?') Perkins' teenage brother, naturally, was enthralled by all of this. Thomas Wayne Perkins couldn't wait until he, too, would one day be a recording artist.

Of course, having connections to Johnny Cash and Sun owner Sam Phillips, not to mention residing in the general vicinity of Elvis Presley, didn't hamper the younger sibling's odds of achieving his goals. For one thing, he attended Humes High, which Elvis had made famous in the few years since he had graduated from the school, located just a dozen or so blocks from the Union Avenue location of Sun Records. Thomas had a good excuse for stopping by the modest facility from time to time, not because of Presley, who had already left the label (and Memphis, temporarily) for RCA Victor's Nashville, New York and Hollywood studios while in the process of becoming a household name, but because his brother was a "big shot" with the Tennessee Two.

The situation had changed by the time Elvis was drafted by the U.S. Army and began serving a two-year term in March 1958. Presley's own two-man band, bassist Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore, had broken away several months earlier in search of their own greener pastures; Bill started his own instrumental group, Bill Black's Combo, and Scotty, sometimes using the more businesslike moniker Scott Moore, threw in with Memphis musician and truck driver Ronald "Slim" Wallace, whose Fernwood Record label was just getting off the ground. Fernwood's artist roster over the next few years included Travis Wammack, Ace Cannon and Moore himself. But they were all eclipsed by Luther's kid brother, using the professional name Thomas Wayne.

It seems hanging around the Sun studio was a good idea considering the younger Perkins was introduced to Moore who later, in his capacity as vice president of Fernwood, took a chance with the budding singer. Wayne's first single for the label was Ray Scott's "You're the One That Done It," a midtempo rocker also released on the larger Mercury label. The flip side, Chips Moman's "This Time," had hit potential realized three years later by Troy Shondell.

Thomas Wayne

In September, Moore produced Wayne's recording of "Tragedy," one forlorn downer of a tune ('Blown by wind, kissed by snow, all that's left is the've gone from me...oh, oh, tragedy'), tailor-made for anyone who's in the mood to wallow in know who you are! The song was written by Fred Burch (who, with collaborators, penned his share of hits including "P.T. 109," the JFK legend as characterized by Jimmy Dean, and fanciful Perry Como hit "Dream on Little Dreamer") and Gerald Nelson (later given the enviable assignment - or burden? - of creating songs for some of Presley's schlockier '60s films, resulting in "The Love Machine," "Yoga is as Yoga Does," "Double Trouble" and other notoriously dubious ditties). "Tragedy" was the biggest, and arguably best, piece of music they ever created, separately or collectively.

Three girls from Humes High, all acquainted with Thomas, were called upon to supply background vocals at the session for "Tragedy" and its flip side, the teen-leaning "Saturday Date." Sandra Brown, Carol Moss and Nancy Reed were unceremoniously dubbed The DeLons and made the rounds with Wayne to perform and promote the record. It broke nationwide in January 1959 and reached the top ten in March. The girls were brought in for the follow-up single, "Eternally," amiably complementing Wayne's lead vocal on a Burch-Nelson ballad that was probably too similar to gain any momentum of its own; it barely scraped the charts in May while "Tragedy" was still riding high.

There was one more single with the DeLons and two solo 45s after that, including "Girl Next Door" in early 1960, written by Wayne with Bill Rice, another Fernwood artist. Elvis latched onto the song shortly after his March release from the Army, recording it as "Girl Next Door Went A'Walking" for his grand re-entrance LP, Elvis is Back! Wayne waxed one single ("No More No More") for the Capehart label in 1961, then did a one-shot for Sun's subsidiary, Phillips International, "I've Got it Made" (written by Rice). After one final effort for Santo Records ("8th Wonder of the World," another tune written by Gerald Nelson and Fred Burch), he went behind the scenes, producing and engineering various sessions, but without any notable breakthroughs.

The message of "Tragedy" resonated further when a version by The Fleetwoods went top ten in the spring of 1961 and Brian Hyland's remake hit the charts in '69. The title of Wayne's one big hit can be regrettably applied to the lives of both Perkins brothers. In August 1968, Luther Perkins died as a result of a fire in his Henderson, Tennessee home, reportedly caused when he fell asleep with a lit cigarette in his hand; he was 40 years old. Thomas Wayne's tragedy came at an even younger age: just 31, he was involved in an automobile crash that took his life in August 1971.

- Michael Jack Kirby