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History and the “Million Dollar Quartet,” Broadway’s Million Dollar Hit

Nederlander Theater
208 W. 41st St.
New York, N.Y.

By sheer coincidence, December 4, 1956, became one of the landmark days in American musical history.  The day started out innocently enough.  As scheduled, Carl Perkins— already a star with his hit song “Blue Suede Shoes” —his brothers, and a musician friend arrived late in the afternoon to work on new material for Sun Records at the Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee.  Sam Phillips, the flashy, talkative owner of Sun Records, thought they needed some piano accompaniment and phoned Jerry Lee Lewis, who lived in Memphis.  Just after Perkins and Lewis met, Elvis Presley, a huge rock ‘n’ roll superstar already, arrived, unannounced, just to pay a visit to his friend Phillips.  Presley listened to Perkins play from the booth and then went into the studio to greet him and Lewis.  Around this time (no one is sure when) budding young country music star Johnny Cash showed up (Cash maintained that he was there first).  Within minutes, the stars began an ad hoc jam session that lasted nearly three hours.  It was the first and only time they played together and the session made history.

That 1956 session is the basis for the hit Broadway musical Million Dollar Quartet that is now playing at New York’s Nederlander Theater.

Everyone at Sun Studios agreed on what happened, sort of.  In his book Cash, Johnny Cash said that he was quietly listening to Perkins.  “Then Elvis came in with his girlfriend,” said Cash.  “At that point, the session stopped and we all started laughing and cutting up with each other.  Then Elvis sat down at the piano and we all started singing gospel songs we all knew, then some Bill Monroe songs.”

Publicity-minded Phillips, startled that he suddenly had four titans in his studio, called Bob Johnson, the entertainment editor of the Memphis Press-Scimitar.  Johnson soon arrived at the studio with a photographer, who took a picture of the four men singing.  He took a number of other photos (Elvis’ girlfriend Marilyn Evans always claimed that she was in the original picture, but was cropped out).

Evans had the same reaction as everyone else there that day.  “It was an out of body experience,” she was quoted as saying in the Memphis newspaper, “just other worldly.”  

The next day, the newspapers ran their story, with a headline that stuck in musical history, “Million Dollar Quartet.”

The musical Million Dollar Quartet is a real treat for all music lovers.  It presents the quartet of superstars when they were young and experimenting with their music in the tiny, isolated studio far from the big arenas and heavily-lit stages.  The songs are terrific—titles include “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Matchbox” (Perkins); “Sixteen Tons,” “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Walk the Line” (Cash); “That’s All Right,” “Hound Dog” and “Long Tall Sally,” (Presley); and “Great Balls of Fire” (Lewis).

At end of the show, Jerry Lee Lewis sends the audience home with a scalding rendition of “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On,” including his traditional chair kicking, piano straddling and head shaking finale.  The crowd loved it.

The performers in Million Dollar Quartet are very good.  Levi Kreis won the Tony Award last spring for his portrayal of the very over the top Jerry Lee Lewis.  Jared Mason is authentic as the crusty Carl Perkins.  Lance Guest sounds very much like Johnny Cash and replicates that ‘aw shucks’ country boy persona that made Cash so lovable.  Eddie Clendening does not look like Elvis or sound much like him, but he carries off the performance by acting like him, down to the hip swiveling and floor slides.  Director Floyd Mutrux does a stellar job of wringing every ounce of performance out of the quartet.

The legend of the session grew.  In 1969, a new owner went through the entire Sun Records catalogues and found, amid 10,000 hours of tape, nearly one hour from the session, that he issued as The Million Dollar Quartet.  Over the years, more footage was discovered and in 1987 a new and larger version was issued.  Yet another version came out in 1990 and a final disk in 2006 on the fiftieth anniversary of the historic gathering.  Altogether, there are forty-six musical tracks on the complete disk, but none are complete songs.  There are starts and restarts of some songs and several versions of others.  Many are interrupted by the chatter between the four men.

The four stars loved the jam session.  “I never had a better time than yesterday afternoon when I dropped in to Sam Phillips’ place,” Presley told the Memphis Press-Scimitar.

The King could not believe the energy of Jerry Lee Lewis.  “That boy can go,” Presley said.  “I think he has a great future ahead of him.”

I first heard of the “million dollar quartet” in the early 1980s.  I interviewed Carl Perkins and he told me the story.  He raised his eyebrows as he did, astonished still, thirty years later, that the four men were in the same studio at the same time and decided, without any planning, to stage a jam session.

“It was memorable,” he said.  “Oh my, it was memorable.”

A few years later, I visited Sun Studios in Memphis and took the tour.  The recording studio was very small, perhaps a quarter the size of the stage at the Nederlander Theater.  You listened to the music from the session through headsets.  It was spine tingling.

The musical offers the chance to study real history vs. stage history.

The problem with any play like this is that no one really knows everything that was said.  There was a newspaper account by a reporter who arrived late and soon left.  Phillips talked about it for years, but that was just his point of view.  Biographers of the four stars mentioned it in their texts, but in passing.  The tapes themselves did not pick up everything that was said and did not reflect a heavy involvement by Phillips, as the play does.  How did the other performers view Elvis that night?  He not only had five number one songs by that time, but had starred in his first film, “Love Me Tender.”  There is some reference to jealousy by the other men, but you don’t get good glimpse of their feelings.

The play was written by Colin Escott, who worked for Sun Records for years and had more access to the story and the people involved than anyone.  He took some liberties with his history.  He and director Mutrux wrote several storylines that are seemingly invented in order to put some drama into the story.  In one, Elvis is trying to get Phillips to come with him to his new record company, RCA.  In another, Cash is trying to tell Phillips that he is leaving Sun for Columbia records.

In the play, Elvis’ girlfriend, called Dayanne, sings several songs.  His real girlfriend, Evans, did not.  In the play, Sam Phillips takes the famous historical photograph; in reality, the photographer from the newspaper took it.  In the play, Johnny Cash ends his relationship with Sun Records that night, in 1956.  That actually happened two years later, in 1958.  There is no record of Elvis trying to talk Phillips into working with him at RCA.  There were actually many other people at the studio that night, including singer Smokey Joe Baugh and a half dozen musicians; they are not in the play.  In the play, all four men stay all night, but Cash actually left right after the photo was taken.

None of the dramatic subplots in the musical are mentioned in Escott’s biography of Sun Records and Phillips, Good Rockin’ Tonight (St. Martin’s Press, 1991).  So it appears that he bent history a bit.

But then again, the producers state clearly that this musical is “based on a true story” and cannot be the entire story.

There was controversy, too.  Johnny Cash claimed that he sang with the group, but others there said he did not.  Cash always contended that he sang in a higher pitch and that he was farther away from the microphone from the others and that is why his voice is not so easy to hear.  Others claimed that he was there for about an hour, but did not join in the session.  They said he just watched.

Sun Studios is still in Memphis.  You would think that the success of the musical would drive business up at Studios, now a combination music studio and rock ‘n’ roll museum, but it has not.  “We have a steady stream of tourists who come here because we are a major site in Memphis; the play has not affected our business at all,” said Michael Schnorr, one of the executives there.

The complete story of the jam session has never been told.  That does not matter, though.  Lovers of history will all tell you that what counts is the spirit of the story and its reasonable depiction of true history.  We will never really know who said what to whom at Sun Studios in 1956, or what people’s feelings were that day.  What director Mutrux and writer Escott give you, though, is a reasonably good historical account of the event, and a feet stomping, thigh slapping good musical.

Besides, whatever drama there was is secondary to the concert that is the heart of the show.  Music like that was never played before and it is captured marvelously on stage.

The beauty of the “Million Dollar Quartet” session is that it was not organized and the men performed without any rehearsal.  Later, a critic for Rolling Stone magazine wrote that it “provided a rare post-Sun glimpse of Elvis Presley momentarily free of the golden shackles of stardom and the manipulative grasp of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. His singing, especially on the gospel numbers, is natural and relaxed, minus some of the trademark mannerisms of his official RCA releases.”

Million Dollar Quartet is an historical play like any other, with the author trying the best that he could, with good research and available documentation, to capture an historical moment in time, add some drama and tell a good story.

And that music!

Personally, I thought the very best moment of the play took place after it ended. People in the audience were rising and putting their coats on and a voice boomed out, “Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building.”

PRODUCERS: Relevant Theatricals, John Cossette Productions, American Pop Anthology, Broadway Across America and James Nederlander. Scenic Design: Derek McLane, Costumes: Jane Greenwood, Lighting: Howell Binkley, Sound: Kai Harada, Musical arrangements: Chuck Mead. Directed by Eric Schaeffer