On Dec. 4, 1956, Memphis record producer Sam Phillips hosted a spontaneous recording session with four artists at his Sun Studio that changed popular music history. That fateful meeting has been recreated as "Million Dollar Quartet," the show that opens the Time Warner Cable Broadway series and runs Nov. 15-20 at Milwaukee's Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.
Phillips' studio, a tiny Union Avenue storefront that has since become a mecca for music lovers worldwide, was home to a small rhythm and blues and country label when a young truck driver named Elvis Presley walked in on July 18, 1953. He paid $3.98 to record an acetate of "My Happiness" as a belated birthday gift for his mother.
Phillips, who had been looking for "a white man with a Negro sound," decided Presley might be the talent he needed to introduce the black R&B music of Sun artists such as B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf and Junior Brown to white audiences. Phillips' Sun label went on to record Presley's first commercial releases.
Fast forward to that December day in 1956. Carl Perkins, composer of "Blue Suede Shoes," was cutting some material with a relatively unknown Jerry Lee Lewis on piano when Presley showed up. Now a sensation and an RCA recording artist just four months following his first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," Presley was paying Phillips a visit in the recording booth. Sun country artist Johnny Cash, equally unexpected, showed up to hear Perkins lay down his tracks and the four musicians wound up in an impromptu jam session.
An editor from the Memphis Press-Scimitar, invited to the studio, described the session as "the million dollar quartet." The rest is musical history.
"When people watch this show, it takes them back if they lived through those times," says Cody Slaughter, the actor who portrays the young Elvis Presley. "If you're younger, you finally begin to understand why these four men changed the world."
Derek Keeling, who plays the young Johnny Cash, agrees. "Their impact was monumental and is still heard today," he says. "The real story is how Sam Phillips taught these men to just be themselves and let the music come out of them naturally. Their unique sounds are what made them all so special and famous."
Exploring the sounds of the musicians is what the show "Million Dollar Quartet" is all about. Authors Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux have re-imagined what might have happened during that special session, turning it into a greatest hits concert for the ages.
As Carl Perkins, Lee Ferris performs "Matchbox," a revamped blues track that the real Perkins had come to the studio to record in 1956, as well as the familiar tunes "See You Later, Alligator" and "Who Do You Love," which was a hit for George Thoroughgood and The Destroyers. As Jerry Lee Lewis, Martin Kaye covers The Killer's seminal favorites "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Great Balls of Fire."
As Cash, Keeling performs "Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk the Line" among others, and Slaughter's Elvis delivers "That's All Right," "Long Tall Sally" and, of course, "Hound Dog."
And that's just the beginning of the music.
The storyline for "Million Dollar Quartet also includes insights into the performers. The actors agree that stepping into such famous personas is much different than developing fictional characters.
"Unlike other roles, you lack the freedom to create something of your own," Keeling says. "We are required to capture the essence of these men without doing a parody. I watched hours of video and listened to countless recordings to get Cash's speech patterns and mannerisms down."
Keeling also learned that Cash was deeply religious and wanted to record more gospel music. Slaughter, meanwhile, learned just how manipulated Presley was by other people and how lost he felt among the forces that were propelling his career.
"Elvis was pushed and pulled by everyone, and he often wondered whether he made the right decisions in life," Slaughter says. "But when he was home around Mr. Phillips, his family and his friends, he felt free. He had a lot going on in his head, and I try and bring that to the stage."
Part of making "Million Dollar Quartet" a hit is making the characters real, accessible and familiar. Keeling worked very hard to do that with his Johnny Cash, incorporating characteristics that fans of the Man in Black will recognize.
"Among my favorite 'Cashims' is the way he says 'you' and 'way,'" Keeling says. "He really chews those vowels and he loves to use dipthongs."
"Million Dollar Quartet" opens Nov. 15 at Uihlein Hall in Milwaukee's Marcus Center for the Performing Arts and runs through Nov. 20. For more information, visit marcuscenter.org.