Thursday, 27 October 2016


One Sun Day in Memphis

In the mid-50s guitarist Carl Perkins was developing a hybrid sound of country and blues of what he thought was his own invention. He may well have imagined that he was picking in a rural Tennessee vacuum. How could he have known that Ike Turner, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley were on the same path? Crucially, like Berry and unlike Presley, he composed his own songs. Meanwhile in Memphis, inside a converted and sound-baffled garage, Sun Studio owner Sam Phillips had an inspired notion to sell ‘race’ records to baby boom white kids, but how?

Carl heard Elvis on the radio and drove to Memphis to audition for Sam. January 1st, 1956 Sun issued Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes. The song was a massive hit. That spring Perkins was nearly killed in a car accident. He and his band were driving north to New York City to perform their rocker on national television, dawn found them wrecked and almost drowned in a ditch full of stagnant water. During Perkins’ long hospitalization Presley took ownership of Blue Suede Shoes in the way Aretha Franklin would later claim Otis Redding’s Respect.

On December 4th a fully recovered Perkins was back at Sun seeking to regain his career momentum, looking to wax another hit. Phillips had arranged for a lunatic pianist from Louisiana named Jerry Lee Lewis to sit in on the session to fatten out Perkins’ string driven rockabilly beat. Johnny Cash dropped by to say hello. Elvis turned up. That gorgeous, impromptu and sloppy jam session is still available in record stores. It’s not gold but it’s an important, living document of one aspect of post-war Americana.

Last night Ann and I saw the play Million Dollar Quartet, a fictionalized jukebox musical based on that singular day. Only the people who were there really know what actually transpired between the recorded reels of tape. But even the slightest drama requires realized characters and the semblance of a plot (conflict) and so we were not watching dinner theatre impersonators. The Phillips character, a businessman with a keen ear and an evolving plan, the narrator, weaved all the historic threads together.

Perkins never again soared up into that dizzying, suede blue stratosphere but he kept on writing hits and established himself as an artist in his own right as well as being a sometime member of Johnny Cash’s Tennessee Three. His accolades came from other musicians, notably the Beatles, especially George Harrison, who revered him. Cash left Sun because Columbia Records promised him the opportunity to record a gospel album, his boozy and pill-addled way of giving thanks to his Lord for his early success with I Walk the Line.

Equally conflicted was Jerry Lee who believed playing the devil’s music was wrong even though it was the only thing he was good at. Unlike Little Richard, Al Green and that wimp Cat Stevens, he never bowed to that angel on his shoulder nor stopped pounding out secular music, although he did go country. My favourite anecdote about Lewis concerns his visit to a gas station sometime in the 70s. Inside whilst paying he spotted a rack of bootleg cassettes which displayed his music and that of his friends’. He smashed everything to bits. When the hapless clerk complained about how upset the boss man and the shady vendor would be Jerry Lee snarled, “Tell ‘em Killer was here.” Alcohol might’ve been involved.

Million Dollar Quartet of course, as it must, concentrates on Elvis. The foreshadowing dialogue hints that the guileless King will soon lose his way. RCA who bought Presley’s contract from Sun wants Phillips to join them and produce records for their latest asset. Sam is more interested in the fates of Killer and a Texan named Roy Orbison, and staying put in Memphis because there’s a certain sound like nowhere else in the Sun recording studio, a mystical echo. This is the wistful “What if” moment of Million Dollar Quartet as the audience teeters atop the apex of what will prove to be a classic arc of American tragedy.

Sam Phillips and no Colonel Tom Parker. No shabby B movies. Perhaps a late career renaissance singing Bruce Springsteen’s Fire: “If only.” History, any history, is quixotic; we can re-interpret it but the eventual finality of that stitch in time never changes. We can revisit the past, dwell on it, and wish for a different outcome but it gets real, real gone in the space of a backbeat or a vocal hiccup, and we can only imagine what it was like to have been there, in Memphis in early December, 1956. We know what happened over the course of the thousands of days that followed.

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