I recently saw the Million Dollar Quartet on Broadway, the wonderful new jukebox musical about the impromptu jam session on December 4, 1956 at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios in Memphis when Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley came together by pure chance.
The show is a remarkable lesson on the history of rock and roll at a time when it was mostly about music—before big money and show business changed and corrupted it forever. Sam Phillips, played by Hunter Foster, ran a Memphis recording service that lured not only the Million Dollar Quartet but such names as Roy Orbison, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Junior Parker, Rufus Thomas, James Cotton and dozens of other legendary names in music.
Phillips took each of these immense talents and badgered them to find and shape the source of their music. Even though Phillips saw in the young Elvis a white performer who could effectively perform black music (thus melding country with R&B), he considered Howlin’ Wolf his greatest discovery. Elvis, he said, was second.
When you go back to the 1950s to the birth of rock, Sun Records, in its tiny one-room studio, produced more rock and roll records than any other. In 16 years, the company produced 226 singles.
Elvis first auditioned for Phillips in 1954. But it was not until Elvis sang That’s Alright (Mama) that Phillips was impressed. In less than a year, facing financial troubles, Phillips sold Elvis’ contract to RCA Records for $35,000. But, as Phillips says in the play, don’t feel bad for him. He took that money and invested it well, from releasing Sun’s first big hit, Carl Perkins’ Blue Suede Shows to investing in a small hotel chain that became Holiday Inn. Never has $35,000 gone so far!
When Elvis came back to visit Sun on that faithful day in 1956, he was then famous and missed the mentoring knowledge he’d gotten in the early days from Phillips. He wanted Phillips, who had hooked him up with Scotty Moore, his lead guitarist and bassist Bill Black, to come produce him at RCA. Phillips would have none of it. He stayed with Sun and continued discovering artists that other companies rejected.
For those who love the music history of the United States, Million Dollar Quartet is a must see. I hung onto the every word and marveled at the excellent performances by each of the musicians, especially Tony-nominated Levi Kreis as Jerry Lee Lewis.
But so few today know this history. Without it, one cannot understand how fully money and corporate culture have so corrupted this very native American music. For me, one of the show’s best lines comes when Phillips talks of listening to the records of his musicians at home.
“This is where the soul of a man never dies,” he said, nailing cold what he saw in his musicians that others could not.