“Well, it’s one for the money,
Two for the show,
Three to get ready,
Now go, cat, go.”
—Carl Perkins, “Blue Suede Shoes”
On Dec. 4, 1956, musical top dog Elvis Presley dropped into a jam session at his former Memphis record label, where Carl Perkins and local unknown Jerry Lee Lewis were hard at work. Johnny Cash also randomly came to join them, in what would become the stuff of legend.
The impromptu (and short-lived) supergroup and their single recording session was monikered the “Million Dollar Quartet” by the press, and a new Broadway show about it has become a smash hit.
The “jukebox musical” is based on the events of that day at the Sun Record Studios, run by Sam Phillips.
“It was a small record label that had such big icons come out of it,” said Lee Ferris, who plays legendary rockabilly musician Perkins in the show.
“In certain ways it’s a traditional musical where people break into song, but in a more organic sense, because it’s just four guys jamming in a room,” Ferris said. “There’s a looseness that, in my opinion, is kind of more believable than ‘Oklahoma!’ or ‘The King and I,’ where people just break into song and dance… Ultimately it’s not a historical document, but it does have a lot of attention to detail, more so than I would have thought.”
Reviving a legend
The musical, Ferris said, is a 50/50 split between the story of the day and the times and a wide range of songs based on the actual “Million Dollar Quartet” session, as it was called in the press at the time.
“The actor who plays Sam Phillips breaks the fourth wall at the beginning and narrates to the audience,” Ferris said. “He explained how it came to be and how they all got there in their own way, through flashbacks. Soon it becomes the day of Dec. 4, 1956. In a lot of ways it’s very much the story of Sam Phillips, and how created that world in that small space and changed the face of rock and roll in this country. He truly was a very radical, revolutionary thinker, saying ‘yes’ at a time when people were not OK with black music, and rock and roll in general. Most people thought that Elvis was black when he first came out.”
Presley, a former Sun name who had jumped to RCA, had by that time risen to be the top bill in the country; Lewis was still undiscovered, and the other musicians were at the beginning of their upward trajectories. Perkins saw success as the creator of the hit “Blue Suede Shoes,” which Presley famously sang on"The Ed Sullivan Show"(and, some argue, didn’t credit appropriately to Perkins).
“As Carl, I get to have an educational role,” Ferris said. “He was a heavy influence on the Beatles and many European musicians, but he didn’t have as big a future as the other three — his success didn’t necessarily happen in the eyes in the public. It’s been challenging doing the educational underdog role in some ways. It’s easy to be perceived as bitter and annoying, but he’s kind of the realist of the group. He talks about the reality of the record business, and he shows that in less of a fantasy-driven way than the others.”
Ferris said he was able to create his role a bit more than the actors cast to play, say, Presley or Cash, because most people today don’t have a sense of who Perkins was. Ferris crafted his character through watching footage and reading available biographies.
“I got in there as much as possible,” he said, “but there’s a lot less video footage of him as opposed to the other guys. I tried to incorporate some of his mannerisms and signature licks that he played to start solos. But I’ve been allowed by the creative team to do my own interpretation, to let Lee get in there. As long as I stay within the era that I’m playing — not ‘90s guitar licks or something like that — then it stays sort of a tribute to who the guy was.”
Ferris is best known to local audiences for being half of the Los Angeles-based indie act Freddy and Francine. He went to Santa Monica High School before attending the Berklee College of Music and studying vocal performance at Cal State Northridge. Gigs in bands on the East and West Coasts followed, along with a stint as an acoustic guitar builder in Hawaii.
“I came back when I missed making records,” Ferris said. “I just kind of cobbled together a musician’s life.” Other odd jobs included set dressing for television commercials.
Ferris put out a solo record and was cast in a Los Angeles cast of “Hair,” where he was told that he had a talent as a stage persona.
“Other people thought so more than I recognized it in myself,” he said. Later theater work and his musician’s background yielded the skills necessary for him to audition for “Million Dollar Quartet.”
“I wasn’t a union actor yet, but I saw an open audition call,” Ferris said. “My roommate actually saw the show in New York, and thought this was very appropriate for what I was doing already. But Broadway was for actors who had really trained, and I wondered, ‘How am I gonna go into a lead role and hold my own?’ I watched some footage from ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ and saw how legitimate the musicianship was, and that really turned me on, as a musician.
“I went to audition to Hollywood and it was very loose. We basically just kind of jammed. It’s like when you get into a room with musicians; the formalities were kind of thrown out the window, and so I was less nervous than if it was a usual Broadway thing. It just was very easy from there; the whole thing felt very right and appropriate. The rehearsal process was the same.”
That sense of ease has pervaded the show circuit as well, Ferris said.
“Everybody gets along, and I’ve made a lot of wonderful friends. Also, this show has done really well, which is not always the case. We get to go out and play music every night, and we play it all ourselves. That’s different from other Broadway shows because it’s really exciting, and allows for spontaneous energy that can really bring the audience into the show.”
The show marks Ferris’ debut in a Broadway production, as well as the first time he has traveled on such an extensive tour.
“It’s been really exciting,” Ferris said. “It’s an interesting time, in the context of a recession, to travel the whole country and see how each town is doing. You get a really good sense of different regions, and it’s really interesting to see which regions like which jokes or songs.
“It’s been a wonderful overall experience — and discipline, frankly — as we do eight shows a week; we really work super hard to put on a good show every night. It develops a certain professionalism in somebody if it wasn’t in there already. You become good at it very fast, because you don’t have a choice.”
If You Go
What: “Million Dollar Quartet”
When: Tuesday to May 6
Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa
Cost: $20 and up
Information: (714) 755-0236 or scfta.org