On December 4th, 1956, one man brought Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley together to play for the first and only time.
His name was Sam Phillips… The place was Sun Records…
That night they made rock ‘n’ roll history.
Playing at the extraordinary Wolf Trap is The Million Dollar Quartet, brilliantly directed by Eric Schaffer. Set at a small sound studio in Memphis Tennessee (scenic designer Derek McLane), this review of great music from four of the most successful musicians is as much a tribute to the legend of Sam Phillips, as it is to the music and the entertainers that he discovered and inspired.
Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records, grew up a share cropper and sang among his African-American laborers giving him a love for this music. However in the 1950s working as a disc jockey he realized that young white kids were discouraged, if not forbidden, to buy black artists’ music. Sam Phillips, depicted by Bryan Langlitz, is a self-assured savvy businessman who looked for raw talent recording and selling undiscovered talent with expression and irresistible beat betting that the white audience would accept and pay for it. Phillips is commanding and fatherly towards these young men, correcting them and guiding them to sing from their hearts and bare their souls to the audience, an uncommon direction of that era. At the same time he is a man without the resources of the big recording companies that precariously owes his living from the talent of others.
Amen to this Million Dollar Quartet.
Sam Phillips is credited with discovering Elvis Presley but sold Elvis’ contract to RCA for $35,000, perhaps admitting that he had taken Elvis as far as he could on a shoestring budget. One of Phillips’ difficulties was distribution. In the show one of the characters says, “if we really want to get rid of communism, just let Sun Records distribute it.” But with the money Phillips made selling Elvis’ contract he was able to promote and make his recording label’s number one hit, Perkins, “Blue Suede Shoes.”
Sam Phillips brings these four entertainers together by promising them a jam session with the already uber famous singer and actor Elvis Presley. Elvis misses Phillips’ guidance and is hoping to persuade Phillips to come and work with him at RCA. This tribute review of these great singer/ songwriters talks a lot about the cut throat business of music. The commitment, genius and control necessary to be a promoter, and the loyalties of the talent they promote, all come into question. All four of these men seem to hold a deep affection for the man that first believed in them.
Carl Perkins, played by Gabe Bowling, is as charming as he is condescending with a strong ego trying to shut down and outshine Phillips’ new recruit, Jerry Lee Lewis. The young often inappropriate entertainer is an amazing pianist, arrogant and gifted, played by the energetic Colte Julian. The audience is flabbergasted at how someone can play the piano that effortlessly, and passionately, and at times, upside down and backwards, much like a modern day Mozart from the movie, Amadeus.
Turning the International spotlight onto these young men with their lack of both education and worldliness makes Phillips note “that he wishes that these boys would have had happier lives.” Colte Julian definitely portrays Lewis as an out of control brilliant musician. He is, at the same time is willing to take Phillips’ fatherly direction in order to become a star. However on the stage, is willing to humble himself to no one.
Elvis Presley, played by the delicious Jacob Rowley, has the look, the swagger, the confidence and the humility that you would anticipate from this legend. And in he swaggers with a luscious and mysterious, Dyanne, played by Laura Obenauf, who while she may have been cast for the sensual way she thrust her hips, has a sultry and strong voice of many female singers of the day. Her character helps the show progress as Dyanne is an outsider and needs to be informed of what the men in that group already know.
The unmistakable voice of Johnny Cash, the deep bass sound that brings women to their knees, is alive and well in the throat of Scott Moreau. It is Johnny Cash who, instead of resigning with Sun Records, chooses to go with Columbia Records so he can produce a Gospel Album.
You wouldn’t have a true jam session in the 50s without a bass player, and Chuck Zayas plays a quiet but soulful Jay Perkins, Carl Perkin’s brother. There is a great deal of name dropping as to who is related to whom, but I think the audience is surprised to learn that Jerry Lee Lewis, who has the trashy mouth of the most ignorant imaginable redneck, is the Evangelist Jimmy Swaggart’s, cousin. Apparently Swaggart prayed for the soul of his undeterred sinning cousin, however Jerry Lee seems to know that it is the Devil who will sell more records. Drummer Patrick Morrow plays Fluke, a talented jamming musician who keeps his mouth closed and the rest of his body moving at all times.
And now to the quartet: there is a photograph, and recording of the real Cash, Perkins, Lewis and Presley singing the Gospel songs “Peace in the Valley” and “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More,” which is featured at the end. A writer at the time got wind of the extraordinary jam session and labeled it “Million Dollar Quartet.” All four of these singers got their humble beginnings in Church. Johnny Cash’s love for gospel puts him at odds with Phillips as Johnny has promised the Lord that if he were to become famous he would produce a gospel album. Phillips wants to promote only that which the kids will buy and believes that you can get all the gospel you want for free at church. He wants the antithesis of church music, he wants Hell raising, out of your seat dancing, rock and roll. And he certainly picks well with Jerry Lee Lewis, raising the mostly mature audience back into teenaged a thrilled agitated frenzy, as “Great Balls of Fire” and a “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On” lives again.
Songs like Presley’s “Hound Dog” and Johnny Cash’s “Riders in the Sky” are played along with “I Hear You Knocking” and “That’s All Right.” As for Phillip’s bet that rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay, I believe it! 60 years later we are still singing the songs, dancing the dances, and all our lives are richer because of the entertainers that shaped rock ‘n’ roll. May all of our souls be absolved! Amen to this Million Dollar Quartet.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.