It’s a hard call to masquerade as Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis let alone Sam Phillips, the real royal of rock’n'roll and founder of the legendary SUN Studio and SUN Records. A brilliant radio trained recording engineer, talent spotter (not forgetting of course the other halves of SUN Records Marion Keisker and Scotty Moore), and record company boss who sold Elvis to RCA to save his iconic label. He not only paid off his debts but bought a radio station and invested in a local motel chain called Holiday Inn. The SUN Studio delivered the first rock’n'roll record, Rocket 88 by Jackie Brentson and his Delta Cats with Ike Turner! Million Dollar Quartet actually revolves around Sam Phillips, not the MDQ.
I’ve worked at the SUN Studio at 706 Union Avenue, Memphis TN with Billy Swan of I Can Help fame, stood where Elvis did and alongside Sam at his other Phillips Recording studio. I treasure the picture of us and it sits alongside those of my family. That’s where I place Sam. I will never forget when I first heard his cutting edge ’50’s SUN sound that is rarely matched today and watched him receive his Grammy Trustees Award in 1991 in NYC where he didn’t go when courted by RCA. Sam lost the MDQ but followed them by signing the man with the funny name, Roy Orbison. But check out all the other blues, rockabilly and many other Sun sides covering a unique decade of raw music. The label is now run out of Nashville by John Singleton. I visited him last year and re-lived it all again.
Its easy to pick holes in a musical, my most disliked format, so I won’t. The music carried me along all the way. No need for a Lloyd Webber, Abba or a Sondheim. Rockabilly and rock’n'roll will never die and haven’t. The MDQ story is authentic thanks to Colin Escott, renown SUN Records authority. The actors deliver but needless to say Ben Goddard as Jerry Lee steals the show. A killer. Elvis played by Michael Malarkey is not a mere tribute artist and Derek Hagen as Johnny Cash is almost too real. The only American in the show, Robert Britton Lyons, doesn’t quite cut it as Carl Perkins even though he played the same role on Broadway. Perhaps Perkins is too weak a character. Nevertheless Lyons on guitar drove the all live music. Elvis had a girl friend in tow played by Francesca Jackson. Who couldn’t fall for her? And I give special mention to the stand up bass player, Gez Gerrard. He knows rockabilly!
The classic songs are all there kicking off with Blue Suede Shoes and Australian Johnny O’Keefe’s Real Wild Child which I saw him perform at the Sydney (boxing) Stadium, since demolished and replaced by an overpass. Check out Ivan’s version on a much sort after 45 rpm single. Some drummers can sing. I don’t associate all the songs with the MDQ and found hits like Fever, Memories Are Made of This, Who do you Love, Brown Eyed Handsome Man, Down By the Riverside, My Babe, See You Later Alligator and others out of place and awkward. But never mind, they have their place in history. I saw the second preview (I couldn’t wait) and can’t wait to go back again. If you love rockabilly and rock’n'roll, DON’T miss the MDQ at the Noel Coward Theatre and jive in the aisles. Hallelujah!!!