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Rock & Roll legends in a historic jam session

by Michael J. Solender

November 21, 2011

See Million Dollar Quartet at Knight Theatre Nov. 22 – Dec. 11. 

Colin Escott is a British bloke with an undying love of American roots music. He is the author of several books, including Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll (St. Martin’s Press, 1991), the first in-depth account of the Sun Records story. He co-produced "Hank Williams: Honky Tonk Blues" for PBS and BBC, and won a Grammy for compiling The Complete Hank Williams on Mercury Records. He is also a consultant to Time Life Music.

In 1990, RCA looked to Escott to pen the liner notes for an album entitled "Elvis Presley – The Million Dollar Quartet." The playlist for the two-record set included more than 40 songs from a legendary jam session between Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis. In a serendipitous grouping, the four legendary Rock & Rollers all convened at Sun Records studios in Memphis, Tenn. in December of 1956.

Escott, together with Floyd Mutrux, came to dramatize this grouping and wrote the book for the Broadway musical, Million Dollar Quartet. Opening in 2006 in Florida, the show went on to Broadway in 2010 where it played for nearly 500 performances. The show now comes to Charlotte, opening on Tuesday, Nov. 22, at the Knight Theatre.

I spoke with Escott and talked about the emergence of Rock & Roll, big egos, and the timelessness of legendary rockers.

You grew up in England as a teen in the 1960s. What was it that attracted you to American roots music?

There was a rawness and vibrancy to it. It was much more exotic than what we were being exposed to in England at the time. I was very curious musically, there were no Sun Records recordings released in England at the time - those recordings came out on the London Records label. My friends and I noticed a subscript on these labels that said: Sun Records, Memphis, and we went looking for these.

I recall being absolutely enthralled with Sonny Burgess and Billy Lee Reilly and thinking there was no one in the U.K. with that kind of sound. The only way we could get our hands on these was through friends of friends who had gone to the States, brought back these labels and set up shop in rental storefronts for a day or so, complete with a record player and my friends and I would throw money at them, buying up all the Sun Records we could get our hands on.

How did the collaboration between you and Floyd Mutrux come about for Million Dollar Quartet?

Floyd directed American Hotwax, which was a Rock and Roll film that I’d seen and loved. I thought it brought a real immediacy and rock and roll energy to the screen. He’d read a book I’d written on Sun Records [Good Rockin’ Tonight] and knew of the jam session, the tapes, and subsequent release of the LP and CD and thought there was a story there. He reached out to me and asked me to work with him on bringing a story to the stage that was real, not a legends show but a story that had the same kind of energy he brought to American Hotwax. That was in 2001 and we opened in Florida in 2006 in time to have a show on the 50th anniversary of the actual jam session.

The show takes place in 1956. What was the pecking order of stardom at that time? Who was the alpha dog and were there egos that got in the way?

What is really great about that evening and that entire session was these guys didn’t really have a sense of history when they got together. It was just another day at Sun Records. Elvis, while he was clearly in another orbit at the time, was happy to be back close to home in the South, away from the sarcastic Northern press. Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins had recently toured with Elvis so there was no reason for them to think that their light wouldn’t soon be shining as bright, and Johnny Cash, the elder statesman of the group, was a successful country performer.

They just did what musicians did, got together and jammed; egos weren’t really part of that session. These were four guys who knew where the music they loved came from. It came from gospel, R&B, and blues and they were just caught up in that moment.

What we tried to do with the show was telescope 18 months of Sun Records history into one night and use the peg of that assembly as the hook to hang the story of the birth of independent Rock and Roll upon.

What are some small details in the show that people can look for?

We paid special homage to the original sound engineer over that night’s recording, Jack Clement, whose picture can be seen behind the door when the guys come into the studio. There are some other original Sun Records artists at the time such as Ike Turner whose photos are displayed.

When casting the show, what was most important for you and your directorial team – attitude, musical ability, voice, or all of the above?

We were very clear in what we didn’t want and that is an imitator’s tour or show. We want performers who can actually channel Johnny Cash or Elvis or Carl Perkins. We want performers who can embody the heart and soul of their characters and bring that realness and raw energy to the stage.

Chuck Mead who is our Musical Arranger has an incredible talent in being able to deconstruct and then reconstruct a sound that is relevant and meaningful today but has an authenticity to it, the “Boom-Chicka-Boom” beat and sound that Sun was known for.

When you see and hear our show, that is what you’ll find in the performance.

 

This piece is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.

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Tags: colin escott, million dollar quartet, music, charlotte

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