Whole lot of shakin' going on—mostly, rows and rows of gray heads bopping to early rock—at the Nederlander where Million Dollar Quartet set up April 11.
What an alignment of stars occurred Dec. 4, 1956, at the Memphis auto body parts shop Sam Phillips had just turned into a ragtag recording studio for his Sun Records. It was a mythic gathering of Good Ol' Boys—Elvis Presley from Mississippi, Johnny Cash from Arkansas, Jerry Lee Lewis from Louisiana and Carl Perkins from Tennessee—all coming together in song for the first and the last time in their lives.
This miracle was photographed, too. A solitary snapshot survives, confirming this event. When it is thrown up on the screen at the end of the concert, the sight packs a stunning emotional wallop: four fresh-faced musicians—embryonic icons—oblivious to the hard road ahead. And, of course, Phillips kept the tapes in the control booth spinning, recording the jostling palaver between the songs as well.
From this, a musical book of sorts by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux has been fashioned—Southern boys razing each other, joking around—to punctuate 23 musical passages. The flash of the camera concludes the session, and the show enters the homestretch with a Vegas-style revue where the foursome, having ditched their street duds for sequined jackets, tears into a medley of their latter-day hits. The stunt that ends the show could wring applause from a rock.
Gotham Hall, a short hop-skip-and-jump from the Netherlander, was the after-party site. The Southern-fried spread consisted of "old-fashioned" Tennessee baked chicken, hushpuppies, Memphis-style chile, brine-cured roast turkey on succotash, individual collard green pies, pulled pork buns with mustard slaw, pepper jack cornbread and—yes—Goo Goo Clusters. There was a three-piece band swinging and swaying with party-appropriate music, for a refreshing change—country-western that nodded to The Fab Four of the show and reached all the way back to Hank Williams.
The only still-living legend from that session—Jerry Lee Lewis, 74 and six divorces along—gave the Broadway opening a pass, but the original drummer showed up.
"I cannot believe what I saw," W. S. "Fluke" Holland exclaimed. "I told Joyce, my wife, I just wished everybody could have been there like I was so they could really realize how good it was. All the guys were great, and the boy who played Sam Phillips was so unreal. The people who didn't get to know Sam like I did—they can't imagine how much like Sam he was. The whole thing was terrific."
He explained that phenomenal jam session as a rather ordinary miracle. "Nobody had any idea it was going to happen. We were back in town—we being Carl Perkins, his two brothers and me—to record 'Matchbox,' which was released after 'Blue Suede Shoes.' The reason Jerry Lee was there was because Sam had hired him to play piano. And, just in the middle of the session, John and Elvis just walked in. They heard we were in town, and that's why they came by. Now we'd played a lot of shows together in 1955, and it just turned into a jam session. Nobody thought anything about it then. Nobody figured anybody there would be a big star."
[flipbook] Stan Perkins, son of Carl, was the lone family representative in attendance. He was pleased as punch, also. "It was awesome," he said, "beyond my expectations."
His dad is the only one of the quartet lacking a movie biography—but don't rule it out, he said. "There has been talk about one, but it hasn't come to fruition yet."
Robert Britton Lyons, who played Perkins in the show, was scouring the pillared rotunda at the party hunting for Perkins fils. "I haven't seen or met him yet. In fact, I got told that he was in the audience right before we went on stage. Like, thanks a lot—but it was amazing to know that he was out there."
He put in a lot of research on Perkins and credits Chuck Mead, the show's musical supervisor and arranger, with shaping and sharpening his performance. "Chuck is a wellspring of knowledge. He understands the vibe and what's going on with those guys—especially Carl and how he played. A lot of one-on-one time with Chuck has helped me tremendously. And the audience helps, too. They are such a major part of this performance because we feed off what they are giving us. More than just seeing their reaction, we can hear them responding, clapping, hollering."
"I kinda acted like a record producer," Mead explained. "We made a little rock 'n' roll record and put it into a play." Yes, liberties were taken with the song list of that jam. "At the actual session, Johnny Cash didn't do 'I Walk the Line' or 'Folsom Prison Blues,' but, if you go to a show, don't you want to see Johnny Cash sing those songs? That's what we did. We tried to stay close to the original recordings of these songs and the original spirit in which they're intended—and I think we achieved that. The biggest validation we got tonight was that W. S. Holland gave us a big thumbs up."
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