We don’t always realize at the time that a certain event will go down in history as extraordinary. Fortunately on December 4, 1956, Sam Phillips knew the recording session at his Sun Records studio in Memphis was turning into something special. And so he pushed, “Record.”
December 4, 2016, is the 60th anniversary of that most famous, most “electrifying” night, one that was never repeated. Call it happenstance, call it a twist of fate, but whatever brought Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins together at the storefront studio that night, the result was magical. Phillips dubbed the four, the “Million Dollar Quartet.”
Million Dollar Quartet at the Welk Resort Theatre in Branson is based on the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical and is the recreation of that 1956 night in Memphis. The audience gets to sit in on the impromptu jam session, which had been scheduled as a recording session for Carl Perkins. It turned into one of the most memorable nights in music history. Just a few minutes into the performance the audience is totally mesmerized. The interactions are fun, the conversations fascinating. To fill things out (and liven things up!) Sam Phillips brought in Jerry Lee Lewis to play piano. Soon Johnny Cash dropped by, and then Elvis Presley and a friend, Dyanne.
In 1956 Jerry Lee Lewis wasn’t really known outside Memphis. But earlier that year, Carl Perkins had a hit on Blue Suede Shoes, which he wrote. Cash had hits like Folsum Prison Blues in ’55 and I Walk the Line in early ’56. And Elvis Presley had made a splash that year with Heartbreak Hotel and his first movie, Love Me Tender. Sam Phillips has been called “the man who invented rock ‘n’ roll.” That night Johnny Cash toasted Phillips as the “Father of rock ‘n’ roll.”
With asides to the audience, Phillips shares some background to round out the story. He wanted each of them to have an individual sound, a distinctive style. We learn that Elvis had auditioned for Phillips with a Dean Martin song. Phillips remarks, “We already have a Dean Martin!” There are fun insights into the future, too. Elvis says, “I’ll never play Las Vegas again!” And Jerry Lee plays what he believes will be a big hit for him, Great Balls o’ Fire! Sam Phillips confides to Dyanne that he has signed a new fellow from Texas, Roy Orbison.
The songs are classic, legendary; some titles they sing together. Talking of loved ones they’ve lost, they sing Peace in the Valley. And when someone suggests they “kick this party into high gear,” they do, with Let’s Have a Party! Phillips says, “Very good, boys, you are HOT tonight!”
Cliff Wright portrays Johnny Cash. His voice, talking as well as singing, and his moves are impeccable – quiet and studied. Tyler Hamilton as Elvis gives us a sympathetic and charming young man, who already has the voice and moves that will make him a legend. David Brooks is a lively Jerry Lee, cocky but confident in the talent and style that will launch his career. Bradley Waters reveals the quiet yet intense persona of Carl Perkins. And, yes, he’s wearing blue suede shoes. Derek Garza gives us a Sam Phillips who is passionate and positive about his belief in rock ‘n’ roll and his faith in these singers he has “discovered.” It’s not just dollars and cents to him.
Elvis’s friend Dyanne is a bit sassy but kind and understanding. Sarah Tweedle is excellent in the role and has a knockout voice. Austin Wilson is the bass player, Jay, brother of Carl Perkins. Daniel Dossey plays drums and flute. The show is exceptional musically; the set and staging are good. It’s an outstanding show in every respect.
It’s remarkable to look in on these four artists back on that night in 1956. Amazing music, wonderful stories. Sometimes it’s fun; other times it’s a little edgy. We know the legends, we know the songs, but getting behind the scenes, listening to them talk about their lives and careers is extraordinary. They were on their way to becoming artists who are listened to, remembered, and idolized six decades later. Audiences are glad the “Record” light was glowing that night.