‘Million Dollar Quartet’ jam likely impossible today
TORONTO — On December 4, 1956, rock ’n’ roll icons Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins gathered for what turned into an impromptu jam session at Sun Records in Memphis.
The legendary event, dubbed the “Million Dollar Quartet,” was one that likely wouldn’t be possible today, says the co-author of a stage musical about the evening.
“You’d like to think so but these days it seems like superstar jam sessions are usually midwifed by lawyers and managers and accountants and record label guys, you know?” music journalist Colin Escott mused in a recent telephone interview from Tennessee.
“The idea of stars coming together just for the pleasure of making music instead of it being, like, a media-streamed event, that seems to happen less and less and less these days.”
Dancap Productions is presenting the Canadian premiere of Million Dollar Quartet, directed by Eric Schaeffer, from July 10 to July 29 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.
The show, in which the stars also sing and play instruments, details how the four young musicians united that evening for the only time in their careers at Sun Records’ storefront studio.
Escott said it all began when Perkins, the rockabilly artist behind the hit Blue Suede Shoes, went to Sun studios for a recording session. Record executive Sam Phillips invited Lewis, who had just arrived in Memphis, to come in as a pianist on the project.
Presley, who had left Sun about a year earlier, was back in Memphis after a trip to Hollywood and decided to drop in to see Phillips.
When he realized there was a recording session going on, he called Cash’s house and asked him to pop over.
Phillips, seeing much potential in the gathering, then called his pal at the Memphis Press-Scimitar and told him to come over with a photographer.
“It just seemed to encapsulate so much about what made that early rock ’n’ roll so special,” said Escott, who wrote a sidebar about the jam session in the book Good Rockin’ Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll.
“It was the young guys kind of making it up as they went along, drawing on this pool of shared love of gospel music and blues and country music and pop, and just completely, unselfconsciously making something completely new out of it.”
The foursome jammed on about 27 tunes together using just one microphone, which may explain why Cash’s voice isn’t heard on the recordings, said Escott.
Lewis played most of the piano and though Presley took nearly all of the lead vocals, he “just wanted to be seen as just one of the guys” during the session, said Escott.
“He didn’t want to be the king, he just wanted to hang with these guys,” he explained, noting Presley, Cash and Perkins had toured Mississippi together about a year earlier.
“Elvis just wanted to, I guess it was kind of like being back home on safe ground for him, you know, he’d been brutalized by the northern media and here he was among friends back home, as it were.”
The England-raised Escott co-wrote “Million Dollar Quartet” with “American Hot Wax” film director Floyd Mutrux.
Tunes in the show range from “Blue Suede Shoes” to “Great Balls of Fire” to “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Stars who’ve caught the show on Broadway include Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman as well as Chris Isaak, Melissa Etheridge and Lewis himself, who went to see it with former U.S. president Bill Clinton and even jammed with the stars onstage.
Other Broadway patrons have included W.S. (Fluke) Holland, who was the drummer for on the “Million Dollar Quartet” recordings.
“He and Jerry Lee Lewis might be the only ones left alive,” said Escott.
“And he came backstage and said: ’Boys, I’ve just got one problem — we weren’t that good.”’