Old Time Rock 'n' Roll Echoes in Chicago's Hot Quartet

Old Time Rock 'n' Roll Echoes in Chicago's Hot Quartet Million Dollar Quartet, a new musical directed by Eric Schaeffer in Chicago, re-creates one of the most influential nights in rock 'n' roll history.
Million Dollar Quartet's Levi Kreis (as Jerry Lee Lewis)
Million Dollar Quartet's Levi Kreis (as Jerry Lee Lewis)

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On Dec. 4, 1956, a now legendary jam session took place at Sun Studio in Memphis. Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley, all discovered by record producer Sam Phillips – sometimes referred to as "the father of rock and roll" — played together for the first and only time.

That impromptu get-together was recorded and dubbed the "Million Dollar Quartet," which is also the name of a new hit musical enjoying an open-ended run at Chicago's Apollo Theater.

Million Dollar Quartet, co-directed by Eric Schaeffer and Floyd Mutrux and written by Mutrux and music historian Colin Escott, was inspired by the book Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll, co-authored by Escott and Martin Hawkins. "There was a sidebar in the book about the Million Dollar Quartet session," says Escott. "[Floyd] read it and thought it could be a musical. The book had been out ten years, and that never occurred to me. But it occurred to Floyd right away."

Everything that happens in the show actually happened, although it didn't necessarily occur during that session. "We just telescoped a few months of Sun Records history into one night," says Escott. "What gives the show drama is that each of the guys have their own agenda. Carl Perkins had had a big hit with 'Blue Suede Shoes' and desperately wanted another hit. That's why he was there that afternoon. He couldn't understand why the other records he'd released hadn't caught on, and he was starting to question Phillips. So was Cash, who was beginning to look enviously at singers on major labels with big-time tour support and high royalty rates. Elvis, who had left Sun for RCA, always dropped back into Sun as a sort of touchstone, to reconnect with who he once had been and who, I think, he probably wanted to be again. He was in a surreal bubble — '56 had really been his annus mirabilis, his year of miracles — and at Sun Records he was still the kid who'd come in looking for a contract. His management and his music publishing company were controlling what songs he sang, and at Sun he could sing whatever he felt like singing and Phillips was more likely to tell him the truth about anything than anyone else around. Jerry Lee Lewis' first record had just been out about two or three days, and he was trying to get some money to keep his phone connected. Phillips hired him as a session pianist for Perkins. He just wanted to join the party. When you hear the recording, it's clear that Jerry Lee Lewis was the true star of the session. He desperately wanted to be heard, and at every opportunity he'd sing lead." The songs performed in the show diverge from those played during the session. "We really wanted songs that people knew and loved," says Escott. "We've had to bend the chronology a bit to do that, but everything is period appropriate."

The cast of <i>Million Dollar Quartet</i>
The cast of Million Dollar Quartet