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By Richard Ouzounian
The Toronto Star's Theatre Critic
Welcome to the Sun Studio in Memphis, Tenn., on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 1956: four superstars, no waiting.
Fate brought Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins together that day in a jam session that redefined the term forever.
A newspaper reporter who was present dubbed it “The Million Dollar Quartet,” offering a rough guess as to what the salaries of the four men would have been,
and the name stuck.
Now, over a half-century later, the hit Broadway show based on that magical day, Million Dollar Quartet, is being brought by Dancap Productions to the
Toronto Centre for the Arts from July 10 to 29.
The actual session that day (and night) yielded nearly four dozen musical tracks, but the live show can only squeeze in half that amount, including classics
“Blue Suede Shoes,” “Long Tall Sally,” “I Walk the Line” and “Great Balls of Fire.”
But at what point in their careers were these superstars at on that December day?
CARL PERKINS was the one who had booked the studio, to record an uptempo cover of an old bluesy song called “Matchbox.” He was looking for two things:
a follow-up to his giant hit of earlier in the year, “Blue Suede Shoes,” and an inspiration to help him forget the near fatal car crash he had been in that May,
which left him with three fractured vertebrae in his neck, a severe concussion, a broken collar bone and lacerations from head to toe.
Although his career was to continue for years, he never again knew the success he had achieved at the age of 24 and he eventually developed a severe
problem with alcoholism, which he finally kicked in 1968.
Regarded as one of the greats of the rockabilly genre, he performed almost until his death from cancer in 1998.
JERRY LEE LEWIS was the second one in the studio that day, brought in by owner Sam Phillips to add some of his keyboard fireworks to the piece. At this
point, Lewis was only 25 and his talent was best known inside the industry.
But thanks to the boost he got from that day’s proceedings, he soon broke out on his own and by 1957 his trademark classic “Great Balls of Fire” had him
causing an uproar on prime-time TV, when he kicked his piano bench over at the end of the number.
He crashed and burned the following year, however, when it was revealed he had married his 13-year-old cousin. He found himself blackballed on most major
Although still alive and performing to this day, he, too, never cashed in on his early dazzling promise.
ELVIS PRESLEY dropped in next to see how things were going at his old stomping grounds. He had already sailed far past Sun Records and was being
handled by RCA, where he had racked up five top singles and two top albums, all in 1955. He’d also just performed on The Ed Sullivan Show to 83 per cent of
the potential viewing audience.
During the jam sessions, Presley played a lot of gospel numbers from his youth, which is something he would return to later in his career.
The life of “The King” is well documented, from its incredible success to its tragic decline. This Aug. 16 marks the 35th anniversary of his death at the age of
JOHNNY CASH’s role in the day’s proceedings is the most enigmatic. All involved recall him as the last to show up. There are photographs documenting his
presence, but there isn’t much evidence of his participation on the tapes of the day.
(For the record, Cash later claimed he was the furthest from the microphone and was singing everything up an octave out of his range so he could blend with
Despite his starlike behaviour, he still hadn’t broken out as an artist, but that would happen over the next year, with his big hits “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I
Walk the Line.”
His long career of alcohol, drugs and brushes with the law never really kept him down for long. When he died at the age of 71 in 2003, he was probably as big
a star as he ever was.
There they were, four young artists about to explode onto the world. Some would blaze for a long time, others burn out quickly, but MillionDollar Quartet
catches them all at that magic moment when youth and talent and greatness walk hand in hand.