It began as a recording session, a chance for rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins to capitalize on his landmark hit Blue Suede Shoes. What it became was a summit of four rock 'n' roll legends — one established, two on the cusp of stardom and one still an unknown — lighting up the famed Sun Studios in Memphis on an early December evening in 1956. What unfolded was the night of the Million Dollar Quartet.
"It was the dawn of rock 'n' roll," said James Barry, who plays Perkins in Million Dollar Quartet, the Tony Award-winning musical of the session that brought the Blue Suede Shoes hitmaker together with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. The show plays this weekend at Lexington Opera House. "The music created just goes straight to that fun, reckless abandoned center in your mind and then steps on the gas. It's not music you have to go on and think about. It's nothing but fun, just pure fun.
"These guys were so young. And actually, none of them really sounded like each other. You've got four guys in their early 20s with, already, such unique musical identities. That type of rock 'n' roll, it was just pure excitement. It's an adrenaline rush."
Million Dollar Quartet is a musical dramatization of that December evening, even though it incorporates events that transpired in the careers of the four artists during the following 18 months. At the time of the sessions, Perkins was recording Matchbox, a tune he hoped would maintain the career momentum established by Blue Suede Shoes, which had become a huge hit earlier in 1956. A then-unknown Lewis was recruited for the session. Presley and Cash also had hit big that year with Heartbreak Hotel and I Walk the Line, respectively.
Million Dollar Quartet celebrates nearly all of that music (the 1954 Presley hit That's All Right subs for Heartbreak Hotel in the production) and the singles that would soon catapult Lewis' career. But the musical's authors, Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, wanted authenticity with the music, not a perfunctory musical theater translation of it.
"They didn't want it to be Broadway rockabilly. They wanted it to be real rockabilly," said Chuck Mead, co-founder of the popular roots country band BR549, who has served as musical director for Million Dollar Quartet since its 2006 beginnings on stages in Florida and Washington, followed by premieres on Broadway in 2010 and London's West End in 2011, through to the Actors' Equity touring production that comes to Lexington this weekend.
"There are only eight people onstage for this play. Total. And six of them are playing instruments," Mead said. "Four of them have to be bigger-than-life icons, as well, and pull that all off. And they do. It's a tribute to how many talented people we found to do this thing. The tour out there, man, they are at the top of their game. I can't wait for you all to see them in Lexington."
'An honor' to play Perkins
For Barry, the opportunity to portray Perkins meant being able to re-introduce audiences to a rock pioneer whose legacy has often been overshadowed by the other three singers.
"Playing Carl Perkins is especially an honor because he tends to be the member of the Million Dollar Quartet that folks don't know as much about," Barry said. "His career didn't really explode in the same way it did with the other three. So I take great pride in being able to share part of his story and his music with people who maybe didn't know as much about him."
Mead, who became close friends with Perkins before his death in 1998, added, "The tribute to just how important Carl Perkins was, for me, came when I was over at his house. On the wall were four Carl Perkins Fan Club cards signed by their members: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. They recorded more Carl Perkins tunes than any other outside artists. Yet he is a towering figure that a lot of people don't know. To me, I can't imagine a world without Carl Perkins because that's just the way I grew up. Sure, with people in our part of the country, it's like that. But up in New York, they don't know who Carl Perkins is. But they know a little about him after the show."
A previous Lexington visit
Perkins was also the last of the Quartet members to make an appearance in Lexington. He signed copies of his autobiography Go Cat Go (a reference to one of the opening lines in Blue Suede Shoes) at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in May 1996. Among those greeting him was veteran Lexington roots and rockabilly singer Mike Tevis.
"The first things I remember about that night were the blue suede cowboy boots he was wearing," Tevis said. "I thought, 'Those are the coolest things I've ever seen in my life.' I was pretty silenced by his greatness, really."
But Perkins also played icebreaker for the event. When Tevis and several others, including the late local bluesman Joey Broughman, posed for a photo with him, Perkins knew just the thing to get everyone to smile.
"When we were together for the picture, Carl started singing," Tevis recalled. "I heard, 'Well-it's-a one for the money, two for the show,' right in my ear. So we all got to sing Blue Suede Shoes with him. It was a real moment."
'So true and honest and raw'
Barry cautions, however, that Million Dollar Quartet doesn't shy away from the frustrations Perkins felt as his stardom faded while the fortunes of the other Quartet singers rose.
"I do my best to give as many glimpses of that wonderful, generous, selfless, big-hearted guy that everyone who loves Carl Perkins knows is there," Barry says. "But in the show, Carl is in a tough place.
"Carl was going to play Blue Suede Shoes on The Perry Como Show but got in a bad car accident on his way to New York. Elvis wound up playing Blue Suede Shoes on national television before Carl, so that's a big point of contention. Carl is also endlessly frustrated by Jerry Lee Lewis through the course of our play, who is just dancing all over Carl's songs.
"There is reconciliation but also a lot of conflict about Carl deciding to leave Sun Records for Columbia because he feels as though (Sun chieftain) Sam Phillips has given up on him to a degree. That's part of the dramatic tension of the show, so I don't get to live as much in that wonderful, generous guy we all know from interviews. It's really a sad story to tell."
Mead added, "Everybody at these shows just gets caught up in the whole thing because it is so true and honest and raw. People in theater today maybe don't get that a lot. You get the big production numbers with something like Wicked, and that's great. You get a sort of traditional Broadway theater experience that way. But this is just a little bit different. It hits a little bit harder and a little bit faster. Just like rock 'n' roll, you know?"
IF YOU GO
'Million Dollar Quartet'
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 10, 2 and 8 p.m. Jan. 11, 1 and 6 p.m. Jan. 12
Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.
Tickets: $30-$105. Available at (859) 233-3535 or Ticketmaster, 1-800-745-3000 or Ticketmaster.com.
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.