'Million Dollar Quartet' honors flash point in music and culture

The jam session that included Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins is embellished by the musical now on tour.

Photo by Joan Marcus

The jam session that included Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins is embellished by the musical now on tour.

BY JOHN FLEMING

Times Performing Arts Critic

It was Dec. 4, 1956, when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins got together at the Sun Records storefront studio in Memphis. Their jam session, presided over by Sam Phillips, the legendary record man who discovered them all, came to be known as the Million Dollar Quartet, also the title of the new musical it inspired.

"It tries to give you a fly-on-the-wall look at these four, five guys," says Colin Escott, who wrote the book for the musical, which opens Tuesday in Tampa. "Rather than try for something that makes a big sweeping statement about the history of rock 'n' roll, we went for what we thought was a cultural flash point."

The show's score is essentially a compilation of greatest hits by Presley (That's All Right, Hound Dog), Cash (Folsom Prison Blues, I Walk the Line), Lewis (Great Balls of Fire, Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On) and Perkins (Matchbox, My Babe). However, the song lineup in the show is very different from what was actually performed that famous day.

"When the guys got together in '56, they had a common ground in gospel and bluegrass and old hillbilly music, and that's what they played," says Escott, 62, author of Hank Williams: The Biography and Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'N' Roll, among other books. "When we did the show we used dramatic license to change up the song list to songs that are more generally associated with those four guys."

There is a photo of Presley, Cash, Lewis and Perkins in the Sun studio that day, but many people who listen to tapes from the session can't really hear Cash singing. "He was obviously there, because there's a photo to prove it," Escott says. "But I've listened to those tapes, and to me it sounds more like a $750,000 trio than a million-dollar quartet. Cash insisted he was there in his autobiography, but maybe he just showed up for the photo op."

The cast of Million Dollar Quartet is mainly made up of musicians, who perform all the songs themselves, along with a bass player and drummer. Which is the hardest superstar to portray?

"Jerry Lee Lewis for sure," Escott says. "You have to have somebody who can really get the Jerry Lee torment, compelled to play rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll but believing he's going down in flames for doing it. Finding guys who can capture that, the music and the torment, is hellishly difficult."

On Broadway, Levi Kreis won a Tony for his uncanny performance as "the Killer." "Levi was from east Tennessee and his dad was a preacher, so it was no stretch for him," Escott says. Martin Kaye, an English musician-actor, plays Lewis in the tour.

Lewis is the only member of the famous quartet still alive. What did he think of the musical when he saw it on Broadway?

"Jerry Lee is very inscrutable," Escott says. "Before the show, Levi and Jerry Lee brought their own Bibles and picked out their favorite passages and read them to each other. I think they got along pretty well."

Chuck Zayas, playing bassist Jay Perkins in the tour, goes back to the beginning of Million Dollar Quartet when the show made its 2006 debut at the now-defunct Seaside Music Theater in Daytona Beach. The musical went on to be staged in Washington, Seattle and Chicago before opening on Broadway in 2010 and closing a little more than a year later. Now, in addition to the U.S. tour, there are productions off Broadway and in London's West End.

Christopher Ryan Grant plays Phillips, the pivotal figure in the story. In researching the history of Sun Records, Escott interviewed the "father of rock 'n' roll" many times until his death in 2003.

"Sam was basically a secular preacher," says Escott, an Englishman who lives in the Nashville area. "He talked like a preacher. He'd transfix you with his eyes like a preacher would. He talked with the cadences and vocabulary of a country preacher. His sentences were long and convoluted, and sometimes you didn't quite know where they were going, but he always did."

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716.

. If you go

Million Dollar Quartet

The musical opens Tuesday and runs through Jan. 8 at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, Tampa. $38.50-$79.50. (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045; strazcenter.org.

'Million Dollar Quartet' honors flash point in music and culture 12/28/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 28, 2011 3:30am]

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