'Million Dollar Quartet': Present at the Creation of Rock-n-Roll
Goodness gracious, I don’t know how much nostalgia an old body can handle.
These past few months have seen Janis Joplin re-emerged in the person of Mary Bridget Davies at Arena Stage like a furious, fiery storm of blues right out of 1960s San Francisco. I’ve seen and talked with old icon, Rambling Jack Elliott, singing under the shade of a cowboy hat as part of a star-studded tribute and centenary celebration of folk hero and working-man minstrel Woody Guthrie at the Kennedy Center.
And now, this: Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lewis on stage together live, at least in the very live facsimile persons of Cody Slaughter, Robert Britton Lyons, David Elkins and Martin Kaye, respectively, in the touring production of “Million Dollar Quartet,” a musical play by Colin Scott and Floyd Mutrox now at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater through Jan. 6.
The show is based on a historical fact—that on Dec. 4, 1956, Presley, Perkins, Cash and Lewis ended up hanging out at Sam Phillips Sun Records Studio in Memphis and did a number of impromptu songs together and separately which were taped and recorded and became known as the Million Dollar Quartet. It was the only time the four were ever together in each other’s presence at the same time, all of them having been discovered by Phillips before they became rockabilly and rock-n-roll juggernauts whose fame lasted unto death and beyond for Presley, Perkins and Cash, while Lewis, a slower and somewhat chastened version of his “Killer” self is still recording and performing.
What you get in “Million Dollar Quartet” is essentially a live concert, mixed in with less convincing and more contrived dramatic elements. There is the return of Elvis for a visit after he has already gained mega-fame and celebrity. We see Cash wanting to jump to a major record company even as Phillips is planning to extend his contract. Perkins shows smoldering resentment of Elvis and frustration with his own floundering career, while Phillips weighed an offer to join RCA, where Elvis is king. And there is an Elvis girlfriend who seems cooler, smarter and more savvy that the wailing girls usually surrounding the king of rock-n-roll in those days.
If your pop heart was baked in the songs of these four men all of your life, then this musical play is like being at a high school reunion where everybody is still alive and young and where are heard the songs, “Hound Dog,” “Ghost Riders of the Sky,” “Matchbox,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Peace in the Valley” and “Blue Suede Shoes.” You just gotta get up and dance even if you’ve got two left feet.
Everybody in this audience did get up, as some of them managed to do it very slowly. They clapped, and some shook their fragile booties, while others just slapped their program on their knees.
What’s remarkable about this show is just how good the young musicians are—they’re more musicians than actors at this stage. This realization leads you to see just how great that million dollar quartet really was, and why the music is laid so deeply in our veins—just as you recognize, beneath all the trivial contrivances in the show, what a great songwriter Irving Berlin was seeing “White Christmas” next door at the Opera House.
All of these guys—the real ones—ended up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and all of them influenced a host of musicians and singers and legends that came later. From Eric Clapton to Bob Dylan and beyond, all of them shone the light on the source of their particular appeal, where they heard the music and who played it—Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino and Jimmy Reed. They came from the sharecropper fields of Mississippi and Alabama, from New Orleans and the segregated south where all of them grew up poor. All of them heard the blues, rhythm and blues, gospel and country, and drunk with that music they invented something new. Phillips’s genius was to recognize their music as something new and overwhelming. After that, pop music was never the same.
What Lyons, Elkins, Slaughter and Kaye do isn’t exactly acting. It’s inter-acting with each other. It’s performing the music and hitting it out of the park. It’s a presence that’s convincing for the real-life characters they’re inhabiting.
Watch Kaye when he sits down at the piano as a young, completely irreverent and raw Jerry Lee Lewis—the kid doesn’t have a bone or inhibition in his body. He crawls over the piano and thumps and runs with it. It’s like a wrestling match where everybody wins and out comes “Real Wild Child,” making the Phillips character stand up and take notice. Watch Elkins as Cash, the epitome of the man in black cool. He’s kind of languorous and dangerous. He sings “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues” (with that cold line “I shot a man just to watch him die”), as if they were as fresh as a cold beer on a hot day.
Then, there’s Slaughter, who’s got the job of catching Elvis as a meteor rising, flush with success and a longing for simpler times. He tells Phillips of how the colonel got him to do a gig in Vegas where the older audiences booed him. “One thing I can tell you,” he says, “you’ll never catch me playing Vegas again.” He’s got a chunk of the Elvis sound and all of his moves. And there’s Kelly Lamont, as the girlfriend, coming home to meet his momma, who’s as slinky as the recently invented slinky in a pink-purple 1950s dress where women seemed to move around inside the dress, in case you weren’t paying attention. She sings the Peggy Lee standard “Fever” as if she has one.
Most interesting of all in this show where the glory tends to be shared and nurtured except when Jerry Lee Lewis is in the area is Robert Britton Lyon as Perkins, who looks like a walking, dark-haired short fuse, but who plays an electric guitar like he came out with it on day one. He is the master musician, if not the great singer among the four. Still burned up over Elvis gaining fame with “Blue Suede Shoes,” a song that Perkins rode to number one status until a car wreck sidetracked his career, Perkins lets the anger get into his playing which makes it zing with danger.
It doesn’t take long to talk yourself into feeling, if not knowing, that you’re present at the creation. Your feet twitch, your elbows get restless, you shake your head. It's 1956 when you were . . . well, no you’re not.
But, still, it feels like a million bucks up there and out there, too.