Most people are familiar with the iconic photo of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis…
The one taken the night of December 4, 1956 at a jam session at Sun Studios in Memphis. Part of what makes the photo so powerful is the youth of the musicians all but one of whom (Lewis) are deceased.
It was a simpler time, before the sequined jumpsuits, the scandals and the drug abuse.
Obviously, all of them went on to become legends.
And that night is what The Million Dollar Quartet is all about. It unfolds now through Sunday at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. I caught the show Wednesday night before a packed house.
The musical opens with Sun Records main man Sam Phillips trying to decide whether to accept a lucrative deal to follow Elvis to New York City and RCA Records or stick with his pride and joy, a little upstart record company that introduced future stars to the world.
Early on, we’re introduced to Perkins (Lee Ferris) and Lewis (KC native Austin Cook) in the midst of a recording session at the studio. Cook’s version of the Louisiana ivory tickler was about as off the wall and backwoods as could be. Complete with a thick accent and constant aww-shucks-I’m-a-fool one liners meant to paint him as an unknowing court jester. At times, the dialogue gets a little hoaky but Cook made up for it with his superb playing that included the classic Jerry Lee thrashing, stomping, and climbing all over his upright piano.
In contrast, Ferris’ Perkins was understated, even if his exaggerated southern drawl got in the way a few times. However he was more than capable on the electric guitar, dishing out chunky blues riffs and backwater swamp honky-tonk accompanied by the strongest vocals of any of the performers. Ferris stole the show, in my opinion.
And of course, there’s Elvis played by Cody Slaughter, who resembled the King quite closely.
His smooth and sultry baritone was solid, but his swiveling and sliding was so over the top, I thought he’d dislocate something. That said, Slaughter did pull off some impressive moves, especially toward the end of the show when he did a running knee slide across the stage.
The Johnny Cash character (Derek Keeling) was the most understated of all, with a ridiculously low bass voice that would even intimidate the Man in Black himself. His singing was solid except for one spot in I Walk The Line where his voice crackled a bit as he pushed it to subterranean depths.
This show is all about the songs and the musical numbers were by far the strongest part of the show.
Especially considering that all the music was performed live, onstage by the performers.
No recorded backing tracks or orchestra pit help here.
The numbers perfromed include Blue Suede Shoes, Fever, That’s All Right, Sixteen Tons, Great Balls of Fire, Walk the Line, Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, Who Do You Love?, Matchbox, Folsom Prison Blues, Hound Dog and more.
At the end of the night W.S. “Fluke” Holland, a REAL musical legend, emerged from backstage. He was the drummer that night in Memphis, and the only drummer Johnny Cash ever used.
Holland sat in on the drums for a song and told a couple stories about what it was like hanging with the Million Dollar boys, recalling the heady early days of rock’n’roll. Yet it wasn’t as dramatic at the time, he said.
“I wish they would’ve sounded as good as these boys on stage tonight," Fluke told the audience. " I wasn’t hanging out with legends at that time, they were just boys who were trying to become stars.”