Band of Gold

Lewis, Perkins, Presley, and Cash at Sun Records in December 1956.Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Colin Escott, an author of rock-history books who is now the book writer for a risky Broadway musical, had a game plan in mind for Million Dollar Quartet, which dramatizes a historic day in the life of Sun Records in the mid-fifties. “We wanted to find an event that caught the brawling and anarchic character of early rock,” says Escott, “the spirit of the Beatles on the Reeperbahn in 1962.”

It’s an interesting exercise: What if Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash, the four original superstars of Sam Phillips’s Sun Records roster, had been a band? For one afternoon in December 1956, they were, sort of, as they participated in an impromptu jam session in Memphis that inspired the new show’s dramatization. But who would have played which Beatles-esque role in this particular proto–Fab Four? Elvis was the Cute One, to say the very least. By the time of this fateful gathering, he’d already begun undermining the sanity of young girls with his Ed Sullivan Show appearances. You might dub Cash the Quiet One, for his youthful deference, innate decency, and potential to go postal. (Also, his voice literally can’t be heard on the original Million Dollar Quartet recording.) Jerry Lee would be the One Who Wants to Steal Your Granddaughter and Elvis’s Crown, which leaves the perennially undersung Perkins as the One Who Might Actually Not Be Going to Hell.

For Escott, there is no question which divinely charged foursome did more to change the course of Western civilization forever. “I was around when the Beatles started in ’62 and ’63, and to me, they sort of fit in with the other acts that were around then. But there was something wildly, dramatically, radically different about Elvis ’56 compared with Eddie Fisher ’55. I can’t think of any time of such dramatic sea change as 1956, rock and roll’s year of miracles. Pop music at the end of ’55 was big-voiced male singers in front of big orchestras and backup singers in poodle skirts. And by the end of ’56, when Million Dollar Quartet takes place … ” Well, goodness, gracious, great testicles of fire!

The show is loosely—very, very loosely—based on the lone occasion when Phillips’s four most legendary protégés gathered at the producer’s Sun Records studio, a jam session that wasn’t officially released as a record until the eighties. Perkins’s band was setting up for a session—with then-unknown Lewis booked as studio pianist—when slumming superstar Presley stopped by, girlfriend in tow. It might have been the last truly innocent major moment in the development of rock, as Presley, Perkins, and Lewis got together and jammed on … hymns. And then more hymns, and then a spontaneous medley of their favorite Bill Monroe oldies, followed by new hits by Chuck Berry and Pat Boone. The recordings reveal an Elvis more eager to bond with new pal Jerry Lee over a shared knowledge of Pentecostal spirituals than his own material. No one seems to know or care that the microphone is live. These are guys shooting the shit with peers, not posterity.

Then again, you could also see it as the first cynical moment in rock history, thanks to Phillips’s turning it into a media event. He called in a photographer and a local reporter, who came up with the “Million Dollar Quartet” tag that appeared in the next day’s paper. Depending on who did the telling, Phillips may or may not have called up-and-comer Cash specifically for the purpose of being in the photo. Cash claims in his autobiography that he was there, but any audio evidence seems to have gone the way of Nixon’s missing eighteen-and-a-half minutes. (Cash’s explanation: He was singing in an unusually high register.) In his liner notes for a Million Dollar Quartet CD reissue in 2006, Escott acknowledges that “$750,000 Trio” would have been the more accurate title. In any case, this was nascent rock’s first great photo op.

Of course, the details of history seem dull in a 1,200-seat theater. And when Million Dollar Quartet opens April 11 at the Nederlander, chances are the CD of the real-life jam won’t be sold in the lobby, lest theatergoers be baffled by how little the ramshackle charms of the old recordings resemble the high-energy glitz they’ve come to see. (Wasn’t it a John Ford character who said, “When the legend becomes fact, jukebox-musicalize the legend”?) On Broadway, unlike Memphis’s Union Avenue, Presley, Lewis, Perkins, and—yes—Cash will perform their most familiar early hits, raucously, between spurts of dialogue that condense about eighteen months of history into a single afternoon’s chatter. The show, which opened in Chicago a year and a half ago (where it’s still running), has taken liberties. The most improbable: Elvis’s tagalong date gets to belt out a couple of girl-power numbers, too.

Broadway's Million Dollar Quartet.Photo: Joan Marcus

Eschewing obscurities in favor of “Hound Dog” makes theatrical and commercial sense, though familiarity has its hazards. If the performers go for energized impressionism and not impressions, the show could feel like the shoulda-been jam of every fan’s phantasmagorical dreams. If the actor-rockers appear too desperate to impress, it could come off as a tribute show restaged as a rockabilly dance-off. What the show does have going for it is that, unlike any other catalogue musical of recent memory, it unfolds in real time in a credible setting where the characters involved really did break spontaneously into song.

Also upping the credibility is the presence of musical director Chuck Mead, front man of the alt-trad-country band BR549. “I’m the Jiminy Cricket, as far as this music’s concerned,” Mead says, though T Bone Cricket might be more like it. “I knew Carl Perkins, and I know Fluke Holland [the session’s drummer] and Cowboy Jack Clement [the legendary engineer, not portrayed in the show], who are still alive. Without sounding corny, it’s pretty sacred to me, this music, because it was part of a cultural and musical revolution, and things haven’t been the same since then. We’ve worked hard to cut the cheese out. I ain’t ashamed for any of my hillbilly friends who are recording artists to come see this.”

This reenactment of the near birth of rock and roll takes place a few blocks from a symbol of its decline, the empty Virgin Megastore on Broadway. “In the music business, things are so messed up now that there’s a lot of hedging your bets,” says Mead. “These guys went in and had all these happy accidents—it’s always better when you don’t make it up ahead of time—and they didn’t win American Idol to get their record deal. Although Elvis would kick ass at American Idol, I’m sure. What would Simon say about Elvis?” That he plays to the camera too much?

Mead admits to a hint of portentousness in the show’s dialogue but says they’re keeping it light. In other words, don’t look for any binge-snacking from Elvis, Tic Tac–popping from J.C., or references to prepubescent girls from Jerry Lee. It’s a chance to commemorate the very skinny Elvis without the excess poundage of Colonel Tom Parker’s subsequent two decades of badly takin’ care of business, not to mention the cast of hangers-on who helped turn his latter-day existence into a horror version of Entourage. Million Dollar Quartet celebrates the last time Elvis had friendly contemporaries, if not coequals. After the setting of the Sun era, Presley was, in a practical sense, peerless—a lonesome fate that shouldn’t be wished on anybody, much less the guy responsible for rescuing America from Eddie Fisher.

Million Dollar Quartet
Book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux.
Nederlander Theatre.
In previews for an April 11 opening.

Band of Gold