Posted by Jay Livingston
The Broadway musical “Million Dollar Quartet” seems to have been based on a photograph – this photograph.
Memphis, December 4, 1956 – Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash at Sam Phillips’s Sun Record studio .
The set of the show is the studio – an open stage with piano, drums, and microphones, a control room in the rear
The musicians are the stars, but Phillips narrates the play, coming downstage to address the audience, then slipping back into the studio or control room to be part of the scene. So it’s his play, and its message seems to be that this was the end of an era. Elvis had already left Sun for RCA, and Cash and Perkins, as Phillips discovers in the course of the play, were about to sign with Columbia.
But while this date might have marked the end of an era for Phillips and Sun Records, these performers, this studio, and the music they made epitomized the new era in music that had just begun – the era of rock and roll. It was equally a new era for the media that delivered the music, the era of records and radio.
The historical perspective of “Million Dollar Quartet” is disappointingly narrow. A more socio-historical Sam Phillips would have reminded the audience that only a few years earlier, most of the music people heard was not on records, it was live. Even the music on the radio was a live broadcast:
“Coming to you from Frank Dailey's Meadowbrook on Route 23, just off the Pompton Turnpike in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, we present the music of Charlie Barnet and His Orchestra.”In fact, Sam Phillips had done just this kind of “live remote” in the 1940s from the Peabody Hotel in Nashville.
Nor were the songs so closely identified with particular singers. In Million Dollar Quartet, Carl Perkins voices his resentment at Elvis for stealing “his” song “Blue Suede Shoes” and turning it into an even bigger hit. That was something new. Before records became dominant, when the music business was live shows and sheet music, songs didn’t belong to singers. The Tin Pan Alley tunes, by masters like Gershwin and Kern, or lesser talents, were there to be performed by anyone.
But by the mid-50s, in the era of records, audiences for rock and roll wanted only the singer whose record they knew, and only that performance. On the old-style show “Your Hit Parade” (on radio, then TV), the top tunes of the day were performed each week by the same in-house singers (where have you gone Snooky Lanson?). But on new TV shows like American Bandstand, only Paul Anka could sing “Diana,” only Jerry Lee Lewis “Great Balls of Fire.” And they lip-synched to their own records. Audiences wanted it just the way they’d heard it so many times on the record or the radio.
A more sociological Sam Phillips might also have shown us a 45 r.p.m. record and reminded us that this recent bit of technology made records something teens could afford. You could take dozens of them to a party to play over and over again, something nobody would have dared do with the heavy and brittle 78s. The new 45s were light, cheap, and virtually indestructible.
But “Million Dollar Quartet” is not about that. The show is merely a vehicle for a greatest-hits medley. The other boomers in the audience may have been thinking about that yellow Sun label and remembering the first time they heard “That’s All Right” or “I Walk the Line.” I was also remembering when I was a very new assistant professor, opening the red-and-white issue of ASR and reading Richard Peterson’s article “Cycles in Symbol Production,” to which this post owes a huge hat tip. Ditto for his “Why 1955” (in the British journal Popular Music, 1990) which is more specifically about the coming of rock and roll and which you should read immediately if you can find a free download.