Million Dollar Quartet explores the magic of a legendary recording session in December 1956

click to enlarge The dream team: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.
The dream team: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Back in early December of 1956, a handful of young, up-and-coming musicians happened to find themselves in a tiny recording studio in Memphis, Tennessee, with little notion that their spontaneous jam session would become the stuff of legend. The hit songs that would become forever associated with them as performers — "Ring of Fire," "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and, for two of them, "Blue Suede Shoes" — had either been released only recently or were yet to be recorded. The peak of their international fame still lay in the future.

Fifty years later, a jukebox musical based on that session between Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis would emerge from similarly modest beginnings with little foreknowledge of the massive success it would later experience. It was called Million Dollar Quartet.

Matt Wolfe, who's directing a new production of the musical to close out Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre's 2017 mainstage season, performed in the early productions of Million Dollar Quartet when it was starting to break box office records on the west side of Washington, in Issaquah and Everett; it opened on Broadway in 2010 and ran for more than a year. He played the role of Sam Phillips, the man who owned the Sun Records label and the recording studio where the jam session took place. Phillips was a champion of rhythm-and-blues music when the style was still underground and considered too exotic for popular (read: white) tastes.

"I rank him up there with Mark Twain and Walt Disney — anyone who has left a huge mark on our American culture that spread through the whole world," says Wolfe. "One of his musicians from Sun Records said that when Sam walked into a room, the molecules would shift. He had a real sense of mission to use music as a thing that would impact culture in a positive way. I felt honored to give him a voice because so few people know about him."

On account of Phillips' fatherlike role in the lives and careers of his musicians, his refusal to remain beholden to norms when it came to race, gender and socioeconomic status, and the influence that his Sun Records artists would have on later bands, including the Beatles, Wolfe says that Million Dollar Quartet transcends the usual jukebox musical format by telling his tale.

"I've been referring to it as an all-American story. It's all about the idea that every voice matters, and it's also about the idea that one person can make a difference with a dream and the will," he says.

"What's not in here is that, prior to these guys, [Phillips] was giving all sorts of African-American blues musicians in the South a chance that they wouldn't have had otherwise. He said, 'If I could get some white boys to sing this music, it would bridge the divide. People would accept it, and both sides would start to experience the culture of the other and begin a dialogue.'"

That small group of musicians who helped that happen might explain another part of Million Dollar Quartet's charm. The musical functions as a "time machine," says Wolfe, transporting audiences to a period when these "simple country boys" weren't yet altered by fame and age — a slightly more innocent and unsullied period before the "limited edition, collector-plate version" that came later.

But the show's popularity doesn't just come down to Phillips' progressivism or the "before they were famous" glimpse at its dramatized stars, played in this production by Jeff Rowden (Elvis), Michael Feldman (Johnny Cash), Matt McClure (Carl Perkins) and Henry McNulty (Jerry Lee Lewis). Some of it just comes down to a toe-tapping, pelvis-thrusting, rock 'n' roll set list.

"Oh, man, people aren't going to know what hit 'em," says Wolfe. "It's such a fun show. It starts off like a steam train and just keeps going."

That's why, he says, Million Dollar Quartet has some of the same outsider, trailblazing spirit as the figures it portrays.

"It was written by a rock historian. It was music directed by a rockabilly musician from Nashville, not a guy who was part of the Broadway scene," he says. "So, yeah, it does sort of step out of that jukebox tradition in a really special way. I think people come in for the hits and these characters, and they come away going, 'Whoa, I didn't know all this stuff.'" ♦

Million Dollar Quartet • Aug. 10-27 • Wed-Sat, 7:30 pm; Sun, 2 pm • $27-$49 • Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre • The Kroc Center, 1765 W. Golf Course Rd. • • (208) 660-2958

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About The Author

E.J. Iannelli

E.J. Iannelli is a Spokane-based freelance writer, translator, and editor whose byline occasionally appears here in The Inlander. One of his many shortcomings is his inability to think up pithy, off-the-cuff self-descriptions.