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'Quartet' a legend — for a day

Broadway show landing in O.C. tells true story of day in 1956 when Presley, Cash, Perkins and Lewis jammed together in a Memphis studio.

April 19, 2012|By Candice Baker, Special to The Pilot
  • Cody Slaughter as Elivs Presley and Billy Shaffer as Fluke in the national tour for "Million Dollar Quartet."
Cody Slaughter as Elivs Presley and Billy Shaffer as Fluke… (Jeremy Daniel )

"Well, it's one for the money,

Two for the show,

Three to get ready,

Now go, cat, go."

—Carl Perkins, "Blue Suede Shoes"

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On Dec. 4, 1956, musical top dog Elvis Presley dropped into a jam session at his former Memphis record label, where Carl Perkins and local unknown Jerry Lee Lewis were hard at work. Johnny Cash also randomly came to join them, in what would become the stuff of legend.

The impromptu (and short-lived) supergroup and their single recording session was monikered the "Million Dollar Quartet" by the press, and a new Broadway show about it has become a smash hit.

The "jukebox musical" is based on the events of that day at the Sun Record Studios, run by Sam Phillips.

"It was a small record label that had such big icons come out of it," said Lee Ferris, who plays legendary rockabilly musician Perkins in the show.

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"In certain ways it's a traditional musical where people break into song, but in a more organic sense, because it's just four guys jamming in a room," Ferris said. "There's a looseness that, in my opinion, is kind of more believable than 'Oklahoma!' or 'The King and I,' where people just break into song and dance… Ultimately it's not a historical document, but it does have a lot of attention to detail, more so than I would have thought."

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Reviving a legend

The musical, Ferris said, is a 50/50 split between the story of the day and the times and a wide range of songs based on the actual "Million Dollar Quartet" session, as it was called in the press at the time.

"The actor who plays Sam Phillips breaks the fourth wall at the beginning and narrates to the audience," Ferris said. "He explained how it came to be and how they all got there in their own way, through flashbacks. Soon it becomes the day of Dec. 4, 1956. In a lot of ways it's very much the story of Sam Phillips, and how created that world in that small space and changed the face of rock and roll in this country. He truly was a very radical, revolutionary thinker, saying 'yes' at a time when people were not OK with black music, and rock and roll in general. Most people thought that Elvis was black when he first came out."

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