It was nothing less than a musical Mount Rushmore — in Memphis.
On Dec. 4, 1956, Carl Perkins was scheduled for a session at Sun Studio, where he’d record his future hit “Matchbox.” Sun Records chief Sam Phillips had assigned one of the label’s new acts, Jerry Lee Lewis, to play piano that day. Then, while Perkins was working, Elvis Presley — who a year earlier had switched from Sun for a more lucrative deal with RCA Records — dropped by with his girlfriend, a dancer named Marilyn Evans, on his arm.
And somewhere along the way, Johnny Cash rolled in — even before Perkins, according to his 1997 autobiography, later than that, according to others.
With that much firepower in the room, there was nothing left to do but jam.
“We all started laughing and cutting up together,” Cash recalled.
Thus the Million Dollar Quartet — coined in the headline of a Memphis Press-Scimitar article, preserved on an album that was released in 1990 and immortalized in a Tony Award-winning stage musical that opens this week at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre — was born.
“It’s a great story, and the music is so fantastic and stuff we know and love,” notes “Million Dollar Quartet” director Eric Schaeffer. “I really was just taken with the whole sense of these four characters, together. It’s historic.
“I was not aware of (the session), I have to say. It was great to see the original photographs and go, ‘God, this is really cool’ and make a show out of it.”
“Million Dollar Quartet” — which debuted during 2006 in Daytona Beach, Fla., and moved to Broadway for a 14-month run in April of 2010 — does not pretend to be an accurate re-creation of the jam session. Rather, it uses the summit meeting as a template to pay tribute to the four musicians and to Sun’s Phillips, an early rock ’n’ roll pioneer who’s also credited with releasing what some consider the very first rock record of all time, Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88.”
The cast of eight actor/musicians rolls through nearly two dozen of the artists’ favorites, including Presley’s “Hound Dog” and “That’s All Right,” Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes,” Cash’s “I Walk the Line” and “Sixteen Tons,” and Lewis’ “Real Wild Child” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” as well as songs they did play that day. Even Evans — rechristened Dyanne for the show — gets a couple of featured spots. The songs are interspersed with spoken segments where the characters talk about their careers and music and Phillips offers his own reflections, including how he discovered Presley and subsequently sold his contract to RCA.
“I really wanted to make the focus of the show about Sam Phillips,” Schaeffer explains. “Here’s a man who really changed and actually discovered rock ’n’ roll, so I wanted to convey that whole sense of what he did.
“I think the great thing that happens is people hear the title ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ and think, ‘I know what that’s about.’ They come expecting one thing — I think a rock ’n’ roll concert — then get this story that has heart and soul to it. And then we give them a rock ’n’ roll concert as well.
“It’s both sides of the coin, which is something I don’t think they expect.”
Written by Colin Escott — the British-born author of “Good Rockin’ Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll” — and Floyd Mutrux and initially directed by Mutrux, “Million Dollar Quartet” was brought to its current form when producers asked Schaeffer, who co-founded the Signature Theatre in Washington, D.C., to come see the show in 2008 at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. He liked what he saw but immediately saw room for improvement.
“We really worked on clarifying and tightening the script ... so there was as strong emotional arc to the show,” Schaeffer explains. “We felt like we could put a sense of discovery into the show and tell people a lot of things they didn’t know about these iconic characters.”
Chuck Mead from the country/rockabilly band BR5-49, who’s been “Million Dollar Quartet’s musical director since the beginning, adds that “we got it to a place where people can learn something and have a good sense of what went on at (Sun Studio) without boring everybody with tedious historical things. It was a very different time; they were making music in a very free-spirited way that we’ve kind of lost now, I think.”
Schaeffer did feel the show was in good musical shape thanks Mead, however.
“People at first didn’t understand how they could have a music director who didn’t know how to read music,” Mead recalls with a laugh. “I came in because ... I play hillbilly music for a living, and they wanted it to be authentic rock ’n’ roll or rockabilly instead of what somebody from the musical theater world would come up with.
“For me it was a great opportunity to tap into a different kind of show business than I’m used to. It’s a different challenge, a different thing I can do, a different chop. And it kept getting better and better as we went along.”
Mead says his approach to “Million Dollar Quartet’s” music was “just like producing a record. ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ is ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ y’know? It’s a rock ’n’ roll song — but there is an arrangement to it. You can’t just go flailing around. It’s deceptively simple, but if you lose the simplicity of this stuff you’re going to lose the heart and soul and guts of it. So that’s what we made sure it has.
“I think it made everybody think out of the box. The theater people weren’t used to rock ’n’ roll. The rock ’n’ roll people who are now in theater didn’t know what to think of that. It’s the ultimate meeting of the discipline of theater and the complete lack of discipline of rock ’n’ roll musicians. Everybody was out of their comfort zone, and that’s when everyone pays attention and brings their best.”
After honing the production in Chicago, its Broadway run was nothing short of triumphant — 523 shows before moving Off-Broadway and three Tony nominations, including Best Musical. Levi Kreis was named Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of Lewis.
But the greatest praise came from The Killer himself, who attended on Sept. 10, 2010 — along with former U.S. President Bill Clinton — and joined the cast for an encore.
“That was amazing,” Schaeffer remembers. “(Kreis) was a mess — everyone was. ‘Oh my God, he’s coming to see it? What if he doesn’t like it?! But he was great. He played on two numbers and after the show everyone was hanging around in his dressing room and he was sitting around and telling stories — ‘This is what happened’ and ‘I remember that’ and ‘I didn’t like this guy ... ’”
Mead, meanwhile, has received thumbs-up over the years from other surviving members of the session, including engineer Cowboy Jack Clement — who famously decided “I think I’d be remiss not to record this” and ran tape — and W.S. Holland, who played drums that day.
“They all liked it and said we nailed the spirit of what went on there,” Mead says. “To hear that from them really meant a lot. It really made me feel like we were successful.”
“Million Dollar Quartet” runs Jan. 24-Feb. 5 at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Tickets are $29-$105. Call 313-872-1000 or visit www.broadwayindetroit.com.
THE ONES IN A ‘MILLION’
A quick rundown of who the real whos are in “Million Dollar Quartet” ...
-Sam Phillips: The founder of Sun Studio and Sun Records in Memphis was a bona fide legend credited with discovering the individual members of the Million Dollar Quartet as well as Roy Orbison, B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf. He’s also credited with recording and releasing what many consider to be the first rock ’n’ roll record, “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston & his Delta Cats, in 1951. Phillips sold Sun in 1969 and was an early investor in the Holiday Inn motel chain. He died in 2003.
- Elvis Presley: The King was crowned during his 15 months at Sun, where he recorded definitive versions of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right,” Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “Let’s Play House” and more. He became a bigger star at RCA, of course, but given how much money Phillips made from selling his contract to the larger label, Presley — who died in 1977 — was always welcome in the house of Sun.
- Johnny Cash: Cash wasn’t yet the iconic Man in Black when he approached Phillips in 1954, looking to get a recording contract. In fact, he wanted to be gospel singer, but Phillips turned him to the dark side with songs such as “Hey Porter,” “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line.” Cash stayed with Sun until 1958, splitting with Phillips over royalties and the label’s focus on then-newcomer Jerry Lee Lewis. Cash died in 2003, less than two months after Phillips.
- Carl Perkins: The Tennessee-born Perkins — a triple-threat as singer, player and songwriter — earned his King of Rockabilly title during his 13 months at Sun, which produced hits such as “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Matchbox.” It was a Perkins recording session that turned into the Million Dollar Quartet jam, and Cash described him as “a great master and mover.” Perkins died in 1998.
- Jerry Lee Lewis: The Killer was a new face at Sun when the Million Dollar Quartet assembled; in fact, Phillips brought him in as a hired gun to play piano on the session. But Lewis quickly made his mark; as Cash wrote, “If you’re wondering why Elvis left right after Jerry Lee got started, the answer is simple: nobody, not even Elvis, ever wanted to follow Jerry Lee.” Lewis forged his path with three Top 10 singles in 1957-58, and he remains the only living member of the Million Dollar Quartet, last heard from on 2010’s duets album “Mean Old Man.”
,b>A “Million” Others: Perkins’ brothers Clayton and Jay and drummer W.S. “Fluke” Holland are usually credited as the first rockabilly band. Holland went on to work extensively with Cash and is part of the Ultimate Johnny Cash Tribute Show. ... Perkins’ brothers Clayton and Jay remained loyal members of his band, though Jay died of complications from injuries he suffered in a 1956 auto accident while the group was on tour. ... Marilyn Evans, a show dancer at the New Frontier in Las Vegas, lapsed into obscurity after briefly dating Presley in 1956.
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