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                           Muses on The Music

Looking Like a Million, Sounding Almost as Good

January 27, 2016

            I glimpsed, and heard, an important moment in rock and roll history this week. Or at least, someone’s vision of it.

            The occasion was a performance of “The Million Dollar Quartet,” staged at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis. For those not familiar with the musical, it dramatizes an impromptu recording sessions held at the famous Sun Records Studio — literally, the birthplace of rock — in Memphis, Tenn., on Dec. 5, 1956.

            Taking part in that jam session were four popular music legends: Johnny Cash, Jerry Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley. Perkins, already a star via his No. 1 hit “Blue Suede Shoes,” was in the studio to record, and Lewis — an up-and-comer at Sun — was there to provide piano backing. The Man in Black (under contract with Sun) and the King of Rock and Roll (who had left the label for RCA Victor the year before) dropped in during the studio, the latter with his then girlfriend.

            Also present were Perkins’ backing band (two members of which were his brothers), Sun founder Sam Phillips, engineer Jack Clement and a handful of other musicians and passers-by. Clement, recognizing the significance of the assemblage, kept the tapes rolling while the four legendary musicians winged it on country, bluegrass, gospel and other varieties of song.

            Phillips brought in reporters and a photographer from a Memphis newspaper to mark the occasion, but the tapes made that day didn’t come to light until Sun was sold and the new owners went through the archives. Several albums and collections were issued in the years that followed, but the numbers performed were not finished pieces ready for pressing on vinyl.

            That’s the short version of the real story. The musical, which was first staged in 2007, fictionalizes what happened that day to some extent, elaborating on the relationships and developing a dramatic denouement from Cash’s and Phillip’s coming departure from Sun. The girlfriend accompanying Presley, Marilyn Evans, becomes Dyanne, a performer in her own right who rips it up on several numbers.

            The musical’s score includes performances by all four legends of some of their most notable songs, but less of the gospel and other ad-libbed numbers that actually made up most of the historical session. The show concludes with each of the four, dressed in glitter-encrusted coats lowered from the ceiling, performing a final number — the Killer getting the encore, which was “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”

            The show was entertaining; one member of our party said something to the effect that, if the music didn’t move you, you didn’t have a pulse. But I had a few quibbles, including some lines dropped by the actor portraying Phillips (who had the biggest speaking part).

            The actor-musicians did a good job of learning the style of the performers they were representing: Presley’s vocal flourishes and inflections, the physical key-pounding and body language of Lewis, Perkins’ signature rockabilly guitar style and the low, raspy vocals of Cash. But it’s harder to get the timbre and tone of the vocalists, and the contract was at times mildly jarring — it seemed like the voice of Elvis, but didn’t quite sound like it. Ditto for the Man in Black.

            And, as if often the case in tribute bands and shows, it’s tough to find musicians who both look and sound like the originals. In this case, the actor portraying Lewis is too small and slender; Cash is taller than Presley, who is taller that Perkins.

            That size relationship doesn’t jibe with my impressions and recollections, and seems to be belied by the famous shot taken by the newspaper photographer. The taking of that photo — Phillips pushes the shutter button in the musical — is one of the final elements of the show, with the original image projected on a screen.

            Those minor complaints aside, I heartily recommend that those who love The Music go and see “The Million Dollar Quartet” if they get a chance. It’s incredible to think of musicians of such significance as those four, gathered in one studio at that particular point in the development of rock.

            The crash of a light plane near Storm Lake, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 1959 — killing the Big Bopper, Buddy Holly and Richie Valens — was called the Day the Music Died. Dec. 5, 1956, wasn’t the Day the Music Was Born — what is considered by many to be the first rock and roll song had been recorded in that same studio more than five and a half years earlier — but it was a milestone nevertheless. “The Million Dollar Quartet” does a pretty good job of bringing it to the stage.

            The touring company we saw is on a five- to seven-show-a-week schedule — appropriately, the week before the anniversary of the Day the Music Died, they’re in Iowa — which can be found on the show’s web site, http://www.milliondollartour.net. The Chicago show apparently has ended its run, but the Las Vegas production is continuing.

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