Legendary jam session brought to life in musical
Honeywell Center plays host to classic rock stars
Co-writers Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott’s award-winning musical Million Dollar Quartet comes to the stage at the Honeywell Center in Wabash on Friday, Oct. 22.
Based around an impromptu jam session among early rock music’s biggest stars in Memphis’s Sun Records studio, the musical tells the story of the “Mount Rushmore of Rock n’ Roll.”
History News Network reporter Bruce Chadwick called the musical “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.”
Quartet to Break the Bank
According to the show’s official website, it all started in the Christmas time of 1956. Early rock music singer-songwriter Carl Perkins booked a recording session with famed producer Sam Phillips at the beginning of December.
Another star of the era, Jerry Lee Lewis, joined Perkins and his band to record a number of hit songs, including Perkins’ 1957 track, “Matchbox,” which was later covered by the Beatles.
Lewis is especially known for his 1957 hit, “Great Balls of Fire,” which was featured in the film, Jamboree, released in the same year.
While some details from the rest of the recording session are foggy, it is true that Lewis and Perkins were joined by 21-year-old Elvis Presley and 24-year-old Johnny Cash that day.
At that moment, the group had a musical jam session, going down in history as “The Million Dollar Quartet.”
The official website says that Cash, Perkins, and Presley had toured the South together the previous year in 1955. The December 1956 session served as a reunion for the trio.
Cash likely stayed only for a short period that day since he cannot be heard in the recordings. Or, perhaps, Cash sung in a higher register to better blend with Presley, as some sources recall.
A newspaper from 1956 with knowledge of the chance meeting of these four great musicians reported that the “only thing predictable about Elvis is that he’s unpredictable.”
“Yesterday Carl (Blue Suede Shoes) Perkins was cutting some new records at Sam Phillips’ Sun Record studio on Union at Marshall,” the said.
“Elvis dropped in. So did Johnny Cash. Jerry Lee Lewis was already there. Elvis headed for the piano, and an old-fashioned barrelhouse session with barbershop harmony resulted.”
Gospel and Other Covers
According to AllMusic.com, more than half of the material recorded during the early December recording session was gospel music. Not only that, but the musicians also produced covers of songs by other artists including Chuck Berry, Hank Snow, Gene Autry and Bill “the Father of Bluegrass” Monroe.
After the surviving recordings were released, Rolling Stone said “the legend incarnate — all that purportedly remains of the tapes Sam Phillips recorded for posterity that day — and it is worth its weight in either rock n’ roll gold or Monopoly money, depending on how hungry you are for ragged harmonizing, incomplete takes of old gospel and country chestnuts and idle chatter from the principal architects of the Fifties teenage revolution.”
The article in the well-respected music publication also noted that Lewis was “boldly flashing his ‘Killer’ instinct at every available opportunity.”
“He sets up a competitive vocal pattern early on, echoing Presley’s bassy swagger in gospel numbers like ‘Walk That Lonesome Valley’ and ‘I Shall Not Be Moved’ with his own hearty upper-register whoops and hollers.”
The musical adaptation of this chance meeting and recording session won a Tony Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award.
The show also received Tony nominations for Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical, a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Musical Revue, and three Drama League nominations which included Distinguished Production of a Musical and two Distinguished Performance nominations.
The cast includes Jacob Barton as Elvis Presley, Nathan Burke as Carl Perkins, Trevor Dorner as Jerry Lee Lewis, and Sean Casey Flanagan as Sam Phillips.
The cast also features Taylor Kraft as Presley’s fictitious girlfriend Dyanne, Steven Lasiter as Johnny Cash, Bill Morey as bass player “Brother Jay,” and Jon Rossi as drummer Fluke.
Colin Escott, co-writer of the musical, helped to adapt the musical into a television series, which ran for eight episodes starting in February 2017. It is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.
While COVID-19 forced the act to alter their tour schedules, northeast Indiana will be lucky enough to welcome the production to the Honeywell Center’s Ford Theater this month. After Indiana, the musical will travel to New Buffalo, Mich.
Show night dining is available at the venue’s Eugenia’s Restaurant from 5:30 p.m. until the show begins.
Tickets can be found at honeywellarts.org.