Carl Mann was the “Last Son of Sun,” one of the final artists that Sam Phillips introduced to the world. A child prodigy from West Tennessee, Mann arrived in Phillips’ orbit at the end of the Sun Records founder’s golden run in the 1950s. The teenaged Mann would hit the charts with his galloping rockabilly redux of "Mona Lisa" in 1959. Mann died Wednesday at Jackson-Madison County General Hospital in Jackson, Tennessee. He was 78.
A lanky dark-haired figure with a mellifluous voice, Mann sometimes mused that he was born a little too late to have been part of Phillips’ all-star roster of acts earlier in the era, which included Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.
“If I'd have been a little older, I probably would've been more in the heyday of it," Mann recalled in a 2011 interview with The Commercial Appeal. "I came right on the tail end of the Sun era. And everybody, most of the guys — Elvis, Cash — had left except for Charlie Rich."
But Mann would ultimately achieve his own global renown, becoming an icon of the 1970s rockabilly revival in Europe and be enshrined in the International Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
Born near Huntingdon, Tennessee, Mann was just a kid — who’d grown up on church music and the Grand Ole Opry — when he began to make his name in nearby Jackson.
"When I was 11 years old, I started playing talent shows down there. I hung around guys who were a little bit older than I was. I had my first band I was about 12, but I couldn't drive," said Mann. "I ended up making my first recording on the Jaxson label when I was 14."
Cut in 1957, Mann's Jaxson debut was called "Gonna Rock And Roll Tonight,” which found the boy rocker taking his cues from The King. " I was playing country music mostly, and maybe some blues-sounding songs," recalled Mann. "But when Elvis came out, I started doing a lot of his stuff, and then I eventually developed my own style."
The talents that emerged from the Memphis and the Mid-South during that era — among them Elvis and Carl Perkins — drew their music from similar sources. Mann would often note that there was literally a confluence of music in the air at the time.
"I think we all had access to a lot of different types of things: blues, country, gospel and even jazz,” Mann observed. "See, we could get the jazz out of a couple radio stations out of New Orleans. We'd get blues from the stations out of Memphis, and then country from Nashville. Also, back then, some of the old camp-meeting gospel songs you'd hear were rocked up. It seemed to all work together."
Mann's career took a fateful turn when he met and began playing with Carl Perkins' drummer, and future Johnny Cash trapsman, W.S. "Fluke" Holland (Holland died in September at the age of 85).
"He knew Sam [Phillips], so he got me an audition at Sun,” recalled Mann, who arrived at the studio in late 1958. “We went there, put down two songs. Sam wasn't there; Jack Clement was the A&R man, and he said he would play it for Sam.”
Mann’s standout song was a revved-up take on the Nat King Cole ballad "Mona Lisa." "That would be a pop-a-billy song, I guess," Mann would offer. "That’s where you take a pop song and rock it up, and turn it into a rockabilly number."
Mann was able to audience test the tune even before its release. “We broke it out at a gig one night in at a roadhouse across the from Kentucky state line," he remembered. “We started doing it slow, and the kids wanted something fast to dance to. We had about eight requests to do it again. I figured that might be the one we was looking for."
Phillips was initially unconvinced of the tune’s hit potential but was moved to release the song after Mann’s fellow Southern rocker, Conway Twitty, put out his own cover and it began to gain traction at radio.
Mann’s recording would reach No. 25 on the Billboard pop charts and might’ve gone higher, had it not had to compete with Twitty’s version, which topped out at No. 29. Still, Mann's “Mona Lisa,” released on Sam Phillips' new Phillips imprint, ultimately became a million-seller.
Mann would follow-up with another peppy cover of a Nat King Cole song, "Pretend," which also charted. Though Mann went on to release half a dozen other singles and an LP for Phillips, he would never quite find the Top 40 again.
He went on to tour with Carl Perkins’ band in the early '60s, before being drafted into the Army in 1964. "By the time I got back out of the service, the music had changed," says Mann, who returned to civilian life in 1967. "The Beatles were hot, and The Monkees and bands like that."
After his discharge, Mann cut one single for the Monument label, and then began to recede from the music industry. He soon got married and went to work in his family's lumber business in Huntingdon.
"Every once in a while, I'd break loose and do something in music," recalled Mann, who made some recordings for ABC/Dot in the mid-'70s, with a 1976 version of the Platters’ “Twilight Time” becoming a small hit on the country charts.
It wasn't until a rockabilly revival took hold in Europe in the late '70s that Mann returned to music more seriously. "It really did surprise me when I first started going to Europe," said Mann of the wildly enthusiastic audiences he encountered. "It was almost like going back in time to go there and do shows, because they would come dressed in '50s attire. It really felt good. Felt like I was 16 again. Of course, every time I play, I feel like I'm 16 again."
Mann would record and perform for the next few decades — remaining a favorite on the roots and rockabilly festival circuit — in between periodic retirements from the stage. After dealing with some health problems in the late-'00s, he returned to performing in 2011. That year a book about Mann’s life, “The Last Son of Sun,” was published and he put out a self-titled album in 2012.
Plans for a memorial service are pending.