Elvis Presley strolled into the Memphis studios of Sun Records with his friend Marilyn Evans on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 1956, and when they left a few hours later, history had been made.
Presley joined Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash in a completely spontaneous vocal jam session of gospel and country tunes they all knew, throwing in some of their own music as well.
Presley had just become the biggest star in the world, so the event was news then. A staged photograph of the four singers in the studio appeared in the Memphis Press-Scimitar the next day, calling them "The Million Dollar Quartet."
These days, musical theater products are generated on significantly less-promising scenarios than this one, so the upcoming Broadway Sacramento production called "The Million Dollar Quartet" has a fascinating and fact-based premise.
Though some of what took place is disputed who was there when and for how long most of the actual music the men made that day was thoughtfully documented by a studio engineer who figured it would be a good idea to have some tape rolling. What is known for sure is that Perkins and his brothers who played in his band had come to Sun that day to record. Perkins was looking for an elusive follow-up to his hit "Blue Suede Shoes."
Sun Records owner Sam Phillips had brought his latest discovery, the largely unknown piano player Lewis, to help fill out Perkins' raw rockabilly sound. Presley, a former Sun artist now on the major label RCA, dropped in to hang out and escape the suddenly mounting pressure of his stunning rise to stardom.
Cash, another Sun artist at the time, wrote in his autobiography that he was there the whole time to check out the Perkins session. Cash's voice can't be particularly distinguished on most of the recordings, leading to speculation that he left the sessions early. He said that he was farthest from the microphone.
Phillips is often credited with orchestrating a fertile artistic crossroads in American popular music. Colin Escott, who co-wrote the musical's book with Floyd Mutrux, said that Phillips' independent spirit neatly supported the rock 'n' roll sensibility emerging from his studios.
"Phillips had the ears and the knowledge at a time when so few white people could really pick up on African American culture and to separate out good from bad," Escott said. "But when B.B. King or Howlin' Wolf came into his studio, he knew here were artists whose work needed to be recorded. And then when Elvis Presley came in, to listen to him and see beneath the insecurity and lack of polish to hear something that probably no one else could have picked up."
Escott wrote the acclaimed book "Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll" as well "Hank Williams: The Biography" and other often-referenced works about the early days of rock 'n' roll and country music.
"When you've worked in the record industry as I have, you have a deep appreciation for people who can see beyond trends and have a singular vision and just stick with it," Escott said of Phillips. "Here's Elvis Presley, who comes in wanting to sound like Dean Martin and suddenly breaks into a rhythm and blues song with a little two-piece band behind him, and Sam Phillips is probably the only guy on earth who had the courage and insight to say 'Yeah, that's where I want to go.' "
Phillips relished the David-and-Goliath aspect of what he did, an idea that still plays out in the music industry today. His Sun Records was the indie label with its ears to the ground picking up on what was new, before the major labels came after him flashing their checkbooks.
"There's a line in the play when Phillips says, 'I'd rather sell a hundred records of some guy I brought along myself than a million with somebody else calling the shots.' That's exactly the way he was," Escott said.
Escott said they have taken some creative liberties with the events of Dec. 4, 1956, by cramming 18 months of Sun Records history into one night.
As Martin Kaye, who plays Jerry Lee Lewis, said, "You have to stay true to the event, but you also have to make it a show."
Part of the show is that all the actors play their own instruments and all the musicians are on stage.
"It adds a little bit of integrity to it because we're all just a rock 'n' roll band touring the States," Kaye said. The four actors playing the principals harmonize just as the actual Million Dollar Quartet did, and the music moves from the gospel and country base the singers all knew into some of their familiar hits from later in their careers.
"On the whole, we feel an amazing energy. It's quite surreal sometimes," Kaye said of the performances. "People just connect with us on such a personal level.
"For the old 'uns, it's something that they grew up with, it's something that they know taking them back to their childhood. For the young 'uns, it's a chance to see live musicians playing a show and telling a story about their heritage. Because rock 'n' roll is American music."