The Million Dollar Quartet at The Playhouse Theatre Edinburgh takes us back in time to a magical moment in music history when record producer Sam Phillips was moulding the separate and yet to converge paths of Blues, Country and Blue-Grass music into what would become Rock’n’Roll. In one unique small studio at one unique moment in time, Sun Studios in Memphis on December 4th 1956, captured forever on tape, was the quartet that the local newspaper named “The Million Dollar Quartet”- Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. Playing our central roles in this show are
Martin Kemp – Sam Phillips
Rhys Whitfield – Elvis Presley
Matthew Wycliffe – Carl Perkins
Robbie Durham – Johnny Cash
Martin Kaye – Jerry Lee Lewis
Also with Katie Ray as singer “Dyanne”
This is still the music of a very young and formative rock’n’roll and Elvis is still very much a Blue- Grass/Country singer, but we all know what history had in store for him. Jerry Lee Lewis (one of my favourites from this period) and Carl Perkins would go on to have mixed recording careers and some personal life highs and lows, but it is Johnny Cash, “The Man in Black” who would pretty much never stray from his original musical roots and personal beliefs here and enjoy a songwriting and performance career spanning many decades.
If you have any interest in Rock’n’Roll, the music of the 1950s, or just the roots of so much of what became popular music, then this show is one to see. Written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux and directed by Ian Talbot, this show stays true to the known facts with a little bit of embellishment in the creation of Elvis’s girlfriend being a singer called Dyanne.
Martin Kemp is a believable Sam Phillips as he tells not only the story of this iconic meeting but also how he first met each of our quartet. Although the music is the star of this show, Sam Phillips needs to be the solid foundation of everything, and Martin Kemp gives everything that air of reality.
All of our quartet are on great form with their music here, and there are some classic songs –“Blue Suede Shoes”, “Matchbox”, “Great Balls of Fire”, “I Walk the Line” are only a few of them, and unlike many “jukebox musicals”, the songs are not forced into an unrealistic story line, but played live in “the studio”, and this retains that air of authenticity to not only the songs, but the whole show.
A few stand out moments for me that are more to do with personal choice than anything else include Katie Ray covering the Peggy Lee classic “Fever” and Rhys Whitfield as Elvis with a very good cover of “Peace in The Valley”. I always have a preference for Elvis singing any gospel songs (he was one of the greatest gospel singers of all time to me), so great to hear that one. Martin Kaye as Jerry Lee Lewis can do no wrong on piano in this show for me and captures that “wild man” essence of Jerry so well. Also nicely captured by Matthew Wycliffe as Carl Perkins is that tension between him and Elvis over Elvis choosing to cover his song “Blue Suede Shoes” on his now famous “Ed Sullivan” show appearance.
Despite the importance now of these recording sessions to history, Sam Phillips was very lucky that the recording engineer on the day of the planned Carl Perkins sessions, Jack Clement, decided to keep recording what was in the studio. It was over 25 years before the tapes of the session were eventually released in the early 1980s when Sun Records’ new owner (bought in 1969) eventually re-discovered them amongst thousands of hours of tape. The now iconic photograph of Elvis Presley seated at piano surrounded by Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash of course has to make its appearance on stage too. Like the one printed in the newspaper, this however is the cropped version that does not show Elvis’ girlfriend Marilyn Evans seated on the edge of the piano.
“Million Dollar Quartet” is simply a fun show full of great music performed with the energy and enthusiasm that represents so much of what rock’n’roll was to become.
Review by Tom King