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Million Dollar Quartet - Foot Tapping Fun on Broadway

by Rich and Laura Lynch

Million Dollar Quartet is the smash-hit musical based on the famed one-night recording session starring Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. The show that unfolded at the intimate and ornate Nederlander Theatre on West 41st Street in New York City on April 22, 2011 was as much about these musicians as it was the man who made them - the legendary Sam Phillips of Sun Records.

It was just by chance on December 4, 1956 that the four musicians converged on Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. Carl Perkins was working on new material and Jerry Lee Lewis was a virtual unknown at that time who was hired to play on his record. Cash also happened to be in the studio that day and, Elvis - a former Sun artist who was enjoying great success that year - dropped by, too. By performing together for that one day the quartet arguably became the first supergroup in rock history.

The curtain rose on a 1950's recording studio surrounded by a streetscape. Carl Perkins was leading his rhythm team (stand up bass and drums) though a blazing version of "Blue Suede Shoes". To the side of the stage stood producer Sam Phillips puffing on a cigarette.

Mr. Phillips stepped forward to introduce himself and mentioned that he is an Alabama county boy who has been blessed with success. In the course of the night, Sam's story emerges. He talked about being a radio man and how he was having difficulty getting the music that he loved played on the air. At that time, Phillips supported many rhythm and blues artists but because of segregation in the 1950's it was hard to get the music of African Americans played on commercial radio. Sam realized that he needed white musicians to perform the material as he promoted that type of music.

Next, in walked Jerry Lee Lewis accepting the bills that Sam hands him for the night's session and complaining about gas prices (25 cents a gallon). Jerry was sassy in speech and spirited in his playing. Lewis antagonized Carl Perkins throughout the evening and on a number of occasions out performed the star with Jerry declaring, "eighty-eight (piano) keys beats out six strings anytime."

Carl Perkins was presently struggling for a hit and dealing with the ire that Elvis was doing so well, especially with the Perkins-penned "Blue Suede Shoes". The mood then lightened and the band tore through "Matchbox" and "Who Do You Love."

Soon, Johnny Cash strolled in and began to chat with Sam about Elvis. We learn how it was Phillips who told Johnny that there were enough gospel singers in the world and how he should show "a little more sin". The man in black heeded the producer's advice and the scene ends with the famed country crooner's "Folsom Prison Blues".

Elvis arrived with his pretty girlfriend Dyanne on his arm. Presley's date is also a singer and she performed a sultry version of "Fever" and later "I Hear You Knockin' ". Elvis admits that if it was not for Sam he would still be driving a truck. Elvis steps up to sing "Memories Are Made Of This" and "That's All Right". The story of the Sun label and the complicated relationships therein continues to be revealed. We learn from Phillips that he had to sell Elvis' contract in 1955 to RCA "for 40,000 dollars" to keep his business going.

The plot thickens as we hear how Sam is pursuing Cash to sign a three year extension with Sun. But, Johnny was struggling to tell Sam that he already had a contract with Colombia in hand. As conversations flow, we find out that Perkins was also going to the bigger label. Both commented that although they were grateful that Sun launched them they needed better distribution. Plus, Johnny wanted to do a gospel record that Sam did not support. Phillips - who had an ear for talent - may have been angry with the two men but he was hopeful that his next prospect might do well. That "Texan with an unusual voice" was Roy Orbison.

Jerry Lee Lewis used every opportunity in the play to let Mr. Philips know that he will have a number one record with Sun. He was clearly looking for a contract and Dyanne observed that he will be a star or die trying. Lewis got most of the punch lines and laughs in the musical.

Near the end of the show we see Sam take the now-famous photograph of the Million Dollar Quartet gathered around the piano that Lewis was playing. Sound clips from the original session were played and the first act came to a close.

For the encore the set changed to include big bright lights and flashy costumes as the quartet played an energetic and exciting fantasy concert. They each performed a hit song supported by the other stars. Elvis Presley shook his way through "Hound Dog" and gave his white scarf to a fan in the front row. Johnny was riveting on "Riders in the Sky". Carl was animated on "See You Later, Alligator" and Jerry rocked on "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On".

Million Dollar Quartet on Broadway brings a momentous and legendary night in the history of rock 'n' roll back to life. Today, Million Dollar Quartet is a bit of a cottage industry as the incredible impromptu jam was recorded to tape at the Memphis studios. There are many versions of the show and a box-set of the event is available that includes most of the over 40 songs and snippets the group performed that evening.

The play Million Dollar Quartet is currently running in New York, Chicago and London. There is also a touring version in the works. The show on Broadway educated fans about one of music's most important labels and its stars in a format that was engaging. By showcasing the output of this foursome of musical founding fathers the production is helping revitalize interest in this early era of rock, country and rockabilly -- and, that is priceless.

Related Links: For more information on MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET and the other organizations mentioned please visit the following links -- | Nederlander Theatre

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