On Dec. 4, 1956, two lightning bolts met two lightning bugs at Sun Records in Memphis.
Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash were about to transform pop and country music, respectively. Carl Perkins had already cut his biggest hit and would tumble into obscurity within a few years. Jerry Lee Lewis, then unknown, would soon rocket to the top of the rock 'n' roll charts and flame out, settling for a middling country/crossover career.
But for one glorious afternoon, chance threw them together at Sam Phillips' joint.
Perkins had come to the studio to cut "Matchbox," which would become a 1957 hit, backed by the piano-pumping Lewis. Elvis, whose contract Phillips had recently sold to RCA, dropped by with his girlfriend, a dancer. Cash, who'd had some country hits with Phillips, also came by, and the four had an impromptu musical session (mostly of snippets and abbreviated songs) over a couple of hours.
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The tapes went into a box for more than two decades, then surfaced in the 1980s on multiple CD releases. Their success prompted a 1982 live album by the survivors (everyone except Elvis) and a 1986 reunion album with those three and Roy Orbison.
Colin Escott wrote liner notes for the 1990 U.S. release of the complete 1956 session, which an engineer captured on tape with no thought of having Phillips release it. So Escott was ready to collaborate with writer Floyd Mutrux on the musical "Million Dollar Quartet," which got 2010 Tony nominations for best musical and best book of a musical. Its national tour comes to Knight Theater on Tuesday for two weeks.
They took liberties, interpolating songs that hadn't been recorded yet and giving Elvis a singer for a girlfriend to lower the testosterone count a bit. (She does "Fever" and "I Hear You Knockin'.") They've also invented situations and dialogue, but the focus is still on the Big Four.
So who were these guys?
Famous for: Bass-baritone voice singing stripped-down, heartfelt country music with elements of folk, gospel, blues and other genres. (He's in the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Gospel Music Hall of Fame.) Performed until two months before his death.
Hits in show: "Folsom Prison Blues," "I Walk the Line."
Jerry Lee Lewis
Famous for: Hard-driving early songs punctuated by piano solos. After a marriage at 23 to a 13-year-old cousin, scandal ensued; years later, he reinvented himself as a country musician. He's in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, too, and still gives concerts today. (He'll be in Chicago on Dec. 3.)
Hits in Show: "Great Balls of Fire," "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On."
Famous for: Helping to define "rockabilly," the blend of early rock 'n' roll with "hillbilly"-style lyrics or themes. Songs covered by Elvis and The Beatles (who put three on their albums) and co-wrote with Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney. In the Rock and Rockabilly halls of fame.
Hits in show: "Blue Suede Shoes," "Matchbox."
Famous for: Being the most important single artist in pop/rock music history, with 114 top-40 recordings. He's the only one of these four to have a significant movie career and concert presence in Las Vegas. Member of the halls of fame for rock, blues, gospel and country, among others.
Hits in show: "Hound Dog," "That's All Right."