If you’ve been following Ken Burns’ epic PBS series “Country Music,” which recently ran in Vermont, and cued in on segment 4, you’ve got a pretty good idea of the musical milieu that was Memphis in the mid-1950s. The city was a hotbed of musical entertainment, the blues mixing with hillbilly and country music styles. In some ways it was more advanced than its more popular Tennessee music-producing city of Nashville.
There was more experimentation going on in Memphis’ small recording industry and a leader was Sun Records run by a soon to be acknowledged musical seer Sam Phillips. By 1956, Phillips had discovered and recorded four singers who would shake the world of country and western music, help define a new style of pop music, and eventually lead to the growth of rock ’n’ roll.
Phillips recorded Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash during this period. They were debut records for each musician and the sound they produced became known as rockabilly.
Later on, Presley would give a lift to the emerging sound of rock. Perkins would become the acknowledged sound of rockabilly, Lewis would add a wild man approach to rock, and Cash would become a new face in the musical style that became known simply as country.
At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26, Presley, Perkins, Lewis & Cash — the number-one and official tribute band featuring performers from Broadway’s “Million Dollar Quartet” — will come to The Barre Opera House.
This performance can only be seen as nostalgia in the extreme. These performers’ heyday was over 60 years ago, and with the exception of Lewis, now in his 80s, they have all passed on.
The premise of the show revolves around the four performers who came together for an impromptu all-night jam session in 1956. It’s now considered a seminal moment in rock ’n’ roll. In the PBS segment there is an all too briefly shown photo of the four men, all in their 20s, in a head shot. We know that early in their careers, Presley and Cash toured together, and apparently Cash did a parody of Presley’s style that was filmed and appears in the PBS segment.
The BOH show is based on the same actual event as the Broadway show. According to Branson.com, on Dec. 4, 1956, the four young soon-to-be-famous singers found themselves in a Sun studio together and a jam session ensued.
At the time, according to Billboard Magazine, Presley had the top two records for that year, “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” Three other Presley songs were in the Top 50.
On July 7, 1956, Cash stepped onto the Grand Ole Opry stage for the first time. His “I Walk the Line” was one of the summer’s biggest hits. “Blue Suede Shoes” was also a big hit in 1956, the up-tempo rockabilly song written and recorded by Carl Perkins.
Lewis wasn’t yet known outside Memphis, but that day Sun Records owner Sam Phillips brought Lewis in to play piano for a recording session scheduled for Perkins. When Cash stopped by the studio, and later Presley, the evening became one of the most memorable nights in music history.
We’re not sure who the performers who recreate the four famous musicians are, but from Youtube videos of samples of the show, they are a talented bunch. Besides the guitarists and Lewis on piano, the band includes a drummer and a stand-up bass player. About the only aspect of the show that rang false, and this is from a guitar nerd’s perspective, is that the Presley and Cash characters did not play the Martin guitars that the original performers used.
The playlist, we assume, will include Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and Presley’s “Hound Dog,” to “Great Balls of Fire” by Lewis and “Walk the Line” by Cash, among other hits the four recorded.
According to published articles about the show, it opens with Perkins performing his hits while offering up stories about life as a sharecropper’s son and his musical influences.
“Midway through his set Carl invites session musician Jerry Lee Lewis to join him, where Jerry seizes the opportunity to front the band and lead the audience on a musical journey from New Orleans to Nashville and eventually into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As Jerry puts the finishing touches on a set including country music, gospel and ‘Great Balls of Fire,’ the audience will have an opportunity to catch their breath as Johnny Cash comes on stage, with his signature “Hello… I’m Johnny Cash.”
Next up is Presley, who “electrifies the audience transporting them back to his beginnings where he went from driving a truck to delivering 11 number-one hits between 1956-1959.’”
If you love early rock ’n’ roll and rockabilly, if you were a child of the 1940s and early ‘50s, this is a show you should not miss. For those whose only familiarity with these seminal musicians is through recordings, here’s a chance to see their styles, early in their careers, recreated by several talented performers.