On December 4 1956 in the Sun Records studio in Memphis, Tennessee, Johnny Cash (just then making a name for himself), Carl Perkins (who had already had his greatest hit with his own song “Blue Suede Shoes”), Jerry Lee Lewis (newly signed) and Elvis Presley (who by this point was definitively Elvis) held a jam session. Tapes survive of 40-odd songs. This stage musical includes only a couple of dozen, and a mere three sung during that session: “Peace in the Valley”, “Down by the Riverside” and Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”.
There would, after all, simply be no audience for a show that brought these four talents together, even in surrogate form, only to have them faithfully tackle country and gospel numbers. Writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux opt for a jukebox musical. They even throw in a couple of numbers for Elvis’s girlfriend (who did not perform that day, and has moreover been renamed here).
This is far from the most perfunctory of compilation musicals; it is not simply a mock-concert in which the “acts” trot out their biggies. There is narrative: its stories of Cash and Perkins ending their Sun contracts take major liberties with chronology, but no more than having the Quartet belt out songs not written at the time. There is character interaction, especially between Perkins and Lewis.
Ben Goddard’s Lewis could not be calmed down by a truckload of tranquillisers, and he ably reproduces the Killer’s psychopathic piano-playing style (all the music in the show is played by those on stage). Robert Britton Lyons plays a mean guitar as Perkins, though his style sounds more like Link Wray. (Show me a sharecropper with a gold-top Gibson Les Paul guitar and I’ll show you a gentleman farmer.) Derek Hagen makes an efficient Johnny Cash, Michael Malarkey has the most invidious task as Elvis, and Bill Ward as producer and label owner Sam Phillips is a glorified master of ceremonies, quite unlike surviving footage of Phillips himself.
There are many worse jukebox shows around, and the legendary status of the original event gives this show a broad potential audience, which is just as well, since most of 1956’s teenagers are today’s septuagenarians.