Watching the ‘Million Dollar Quartet’

Last week’s performance of the “Million Dollar Quartet” at Phoenix Theatre was much more than a play – it was like traveling back in time to a 1956 concert.

Not only were the actors incredible musicians and singers, but since the performance was a play rather than an actual concert and didn’t allow any recording, it was a time to focus purely on what was happening on the stage rather than on smartphone screens. A reminder of how things used to be before smartphones dominated our lives.

The play tells the story of one night in 1956 (Dec. 4), when rockabilly legend Carl Perkins had a recording session with producer Sam Philips at Sun Records in Memphis. At some point that evening, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley at Johnny Cash were all there and joined Perkins in an impromptu jam session. It was recorded and the recording session was the basis of this musical.

The songs performed in “Million Dollar Quartet” were the songs performed during that recording session and included “Blue Suede Shoes” (I learned that although Elvis is typically associated with that song, it was actually Carl Perkins who wrote it and first recorded it), “Who do You Love,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Fever” (Alyssa Chiarello, who played the role of Dyanne, has an AMAZING voice), “That’s All Right,” “Down by the Riverside,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Long Tall Sally,” “I Walk the Line,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Hound Dog” and “See You Later Alligator.”

It was the only time that these four musical legends would perform together.

million-dollar-quartet

The age of the audience was older and I couldn’t help but wonder who in the room saw the actual musicians during their prime. At the end of the show, everyone was encouraged to stand up and dance and there was an incredible energy in the room.

Although the Sun Records recording obviously happened before my time, I had personal memories connected to each of the four musicians.

Jerry Lee Lewis

I saw him in concert in 1999 in Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix. Because he was famous for playing the piano with his feet, I expected him to do that at the concert, but he was much older than I expected and he walked slowly onto the stage. (He was actually only 64 years old, which surprises me because I assumed he was much older at the concert. He’s 82 now.) It was very cool to see him perform live. The actor in the Phoenix Theatre production, Chris Lash, was an amazing piano player and had that hair-flipping move down.

Elvis Presley

Our family visited Memphis last year and visited Graceland, which was a place I’ve wanted to visit for many years. I was 8 when he died and I remember sitting on my parent’s bed when the news came on the television. My parents were both shocked by the announcement and I remember asking, “Who is Elvis?” They explained who he was and their reaction has always stuck with me.

When we were in Memphis, we also drove by Sun Records. It didn’t work out with our schedule to visit it, but if I ever go back to Memphis again, that’ll be at the top of my list.

Kavan Hashemian, who played Elvis in this performance, has performed tributes to Elvis since he was 3 years old and has performed his tribute all over the globe, according to the play’s program.

Carl Perkins

When Carl Perkins died in 1998 at age 62, the Stray Cats reunited for a tribute show in his honor. I was living in Los Angeles at the time and was fortunate to attend the show at the House of Blues in Hollywood. I was a Stray Cats fan in high school (I met Brian Setzer as a teen and he was SO nice, which made me a lifelong fan) and it was so fun to see them perform. (Side note, I also saw the Brian Setzer Orchestra in L.A. that year, which was a great show with a bonus visit from Gwen Stefani of No Doubt when she joined him on stage for “You’re the Boss.”)

Johnny Cash

Besides watching the movie, “Walk the Line,” which I really enjoyed, I don’t really have any personal memories of Johnny Cash. However, his song “I Walk the Line” was on this Dick Clark album my parents had. I made up dances to each of the songs on one side of the record and for “I Walk the Line,” I’d pretend I was walking on a tightrope across the living room floor. Bill Scott Sheets, who played Johnny Cash, was wonderful.

Life lesson

What struck me about this performance was the idea that this happened before these four musicians were considered legends. They were all in the early stages of their career, not knowing what was in store for them.

Carl Perkins was portrayed as being a uncertain of the future of his career, as he was waiting to have a second hit. Sam Phillips (played by Kyle Sorrell, who was great) was also unsure of the future of his studio, not realizing that it would still be there more than 60 years later and considered part of musical history. Johnny Cash was hesitant about his next move. Jerry Lee Lewis had no doubts – he was certain he would be a star and confidently announced that to anyone who listened.

Although each of these characters expressed moments of doubt about their careers at that time, except Lewis, they all continued to move forward, continuing to improve on their craft. It gives one hope that better times are on the way.

Million Dollar Quartet
A picture of, from left, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash on Dec. 4, 1956 at Sun Records. (Pic from the Phoenix Theatre program)

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