'The Million Dollar Quartet' revisits a meeting of musical giants
Factoring in nearly six decades of inflation and stratospheric star salaries, today they’d be the, what … 500 Million Dollar Quartet? Maybe even … a billion?
Accounting aside, The Million Dollar Quartet remains a musical theater celebration of a milestone, telling the true tale of one iconic day—Dec. 4, 1956—when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis assembled to record together at the Sun Record Studios in Memphis, the legend-packed session overseen by impresario Sam Philips.
Come November, a TV miniseries based on the event will air on CMT, just ahead of the Vegas production shuttering the day of the 60th anniversary. So before we lose a million bucks’ worth (more, really) of musical magic, here’s some trivia and history on five of the most famous of the show’s 23 songs. Feel free after reading to deploy your impeccable knowledge of music history to impress your pals on the way out of the theater:
“Blue Suede Shoes”
• In 1955, Perkins played a dance, noticed a couple dancing and heard a boy say, “Don't step on my suedes!” Looking down, he saw the boy was wearing blue suede shoes, with a scuff mark on one of them. That night, Perkins began composing the tune—writing it on a brown paper potato sack.
• Among its honors, “Blue Suede Shoes” is listed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.” Perkins’ version is also recognized in the Grammy Hall of Fame, the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress, and as No. 95 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” Presley's recording came in at No. 423.
• Artists who have also covered it include The Beatles, the Plastic Ono Band, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, Pat Boone, Mary J. Blige and Motorhead.
“Folsom Prison Blues”
• Inspired after seeing the 1951 film, Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, Cash penned the classic in 1955, blending two popular folk styles: the freight train song and the prison song, and taking elements from Gordon Jenkin’s “Crescent City Blues.” A live version, recorded while performing for inmates at Folsom State Prison in California, hit No. 1 on the country chart in 1968, 13 years after it was written, and won Cash a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance. Reports claim that prisoners were careful not to cheer any of Cash’s comments about the prison, leery of reprisals from the guards.
• Recalling how he came up with the lyric, “But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die,” Cash told an interviewer: “I sat with my pen in my hand, trying to think up the worst reason a person could have for killing another person, and that's what came to mind.”
• Performers covering the song have included Bob Dylan, Keb’ Mo’, Everlast, Black Stone Cherry, the Reverend Horton Heat and psychobilly band The Geezers.
“I Walk the Line”
• Written and recorded in 1956 by Cash—who until that point had scored only moderate success with other tunes on the Billboard charts—it became his first No. 1 hit there, remained on the charts for 43 weeks, and turned into his signature song.
• In interviews, Cash said he composed it in 20 minutes while backstage at a concert in Gladewater, Texas. Based on the same “freight train” rhythm common to Cash’s oeuvre—also known as the “boom-chicka-boom”—it features a unique chord progression inspired by a backwards playback of guitar runs on Cash’s tape recorder. Though Cash originally intended it as a slow ballad, Phillips suggested a faster arrangement, which Cash came to like.
• “I was newly married at the time, and I suppose I was laying out my pledge of devotion,” Cash once said about the “I Walk the Line” theme.
• Others who recorded it in later years included The Everly Brothers, Dolly Parton, Glen Campbell and Tapio Rautavaara (a Finnish-language version).
“Great Balls of Fire"
• Composed by Otis Blackwell and Jack Hammer and recorded in 1957, Lewis’ most recognizable hit was featured in the movie Jamboree, in which he performed it. Ranked as the 96th greatest song ever by Rolling Stone, it hit No. 2 on the Billboard pop charts, No. 3 on the R&B charts, No. 1 on the country charts and even topped the UK Singles Chart.
• Famously, “Great Balls of Fire” was sung by “Maverick” (Tom Cruise) and “Goose” (Anthony Edwards) in a bar in 1986’s Top Gun. Also, it’s in the score of the 1989 jukebox musical Return to the Forbidden Planet, and was performed by Scott Bakula in an episode of "Quantum Leap".
• Other artists who have recorded it include Aerosmith, Dolly Parton, and Fleetwood Mac. Among the more, shall we say, exotic cover performers: Mae West, Tiny Tim and Alvin and the Chipmunks.
• Originally a hit for blues belter “Big Mama” Thornton in 1953, this Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller tune has been recorded more than 250 times, but most notably by Presley, whose 1956 version is ranked No. 19 on Rolling Stone’s ”500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” Both recordings are in the Grammy Hall of Fame. Simultaneously No. 1 on the U.S. pop, country and R&B charts in 1956, Presley’s take sat atop the pop chart for 11 weeks—a record that stood for 36 years.
• Among the films that have included “Hound Dog" on its soundtracks are Grease, Forrest Gump, A Few Good Men (Thornton’s version) and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
• Music scholars say “Hound Dog” was written for a woman to sing as a rebuke to her selfish lover, rejecting him as a metaphorical “dog.” Presley admired Thornton’s original and had a copy of it in his record collection. After Presley’s first performance of the song on "The Milton Berle Show," he was decried as a “sexual exhibitionist.”
• Among the scores of cover artists for “Hound Dog”: Betsy Gay … the national yodeling champion of 1946.
That piece of Million Dollar trivia is … priceless.
Harrah’s, 5:30 & 8 p.m. Sun.-Mon., 8 p.m. Tues.-Fri., $57.52-$79.73 plus tax and fee. 702.777.2782