Opinion » The Rant

The Million Dollar Quartet

The new TV show owes a debt to the city and the man that made it happen.

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It's beginning to look like I'm not going to get the call to appear in the new television series, Million Dollar Quartet, currently filming in Memphis. Actually, we did get a call from a set designer who had heard that we had some period furniture that might fit the production. Since half of my home is still furnished in Mid-Century Parents' House Modern, I thought we might make the cut. But after my wife told him we'd be glad to rent him some stuff, but we weren't going to give it away, he never called back.

Those Hollywood types.

In reality, these folks are Nashville showbiz types who are filming an eight-part mini-series based on the Tony-award-winning musical of the same name to air in November on the CMT Network. An open casting call was held in February for local talent to show their stuff. I was in the process of brushing my blue-suedes when I noticed that the only character over 35 was Colonel Tom Parker — an obese, avaricious poltroon — so it would demand method acting. My hopes for trying out for Uncle Vester were dashed when I heard most of the action takes place in the studio. Not the Sun Studio, mind you, but a look-alike soundstage similar to the one used in the Jerry Lee Lewis "mockumentary," Great Balls of Fire

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The CA's Bob Mehr reported that the film score and other recordings are to be done in Nashville with Nashville musicians. Not to denigrate the excellent musicians of Music City, but that plan seems a little counter-intuitive, considering that you're documenting an event that never could have happened in regimented Nashville. Only in "real gone" Memphis could such a confluence of talent assemble in one place, a recording studio no less, to basically goof off.

We have world-class musicians and recording studios here, so why spend the extra gas? Back in 1966, the Lovin' Spoonful sang "There's thirteen-hundred and fifty-two guitar-pickers in Nashville." I'll bet there's 100,000 by now. The executive producer of the series is Leslie Greif, who actually is a Hollywood type, whose credits include the vastly entertaining mini-series, Hatfields & McCoys, which won several Emmy awards, and Gene Simmons Family Jewels, because a brother's got to make a buck. However, he also produced Meet Wally Sparks, with Rodney Dangerfield, which makes him a hero in my eyes.

I'm reasonably familiar with the tale of the Million Dollar Quartet. First, because I was a Sun artist only a decade removed and a mile east of the actual event, and secondly, I was employed as a tour guide at Sun Studio for a time until they fired me because my tours went too long. It was my fault. I was always thinking of one more tidbit to tell the tourists, and I was gumming up the works. The boss said I just wasn't fitting in with their "formula." But before I was relieved of my duties, the management treated the staff to a viewing of Million Dollar Quartet musical at the Orpheum, for which I am grateful.

The story is loosely based on a historic gathering at Sun Studio, December 4, 1956. Carl Perkins was recording his hit song "Matchbox" with new artist Jerry Lee Lewis on piano, when Elvis strolled in, flush with the first success of his meteoric rise to superstardom, and escorting a Las Vegas showgirl named Marilyn Evans. The accepted story has Johnny Cash arriving from an afternoon of Christmas shopping, although Cash denied it. "I was the first to arrive and the last to leave," Cash wrote in his autobiography. "I was there to watch Carl record." Whatever the sequence, when the group gathered around the piano, Sam Phillips immediately called a newspaper columnist and a photographer while his engineer, Jack "Cowboy" Clement, pushed "record." The result was an indelible photograph and a spontaneous jam session that included snippets of nearly 50 songs and studio conversations that weren't released in their entirety until 1990. The TV series expands upon the musical, featuring the greatest hit songs you'd expect, plus Memphis characters like Dewey Phillips, B.B. King, and Ike Turner. But there is one more prominent character who should be in the film.

Before the historians and the discographers descended on Sam Phillips, he was an approachable man who loved sitting behind his big desk reflecting on his glorious career. I once asked him who was the most exciting artist he ever recorded, and without hesitation, he replied, "The Howlin' Wolf." He said that Jerry Lee and Charlie Rich may have had the most talent, but the Wolf had a presence in the studio that you could feel. Mr. Phillips said, "His band knew not to mess up, or the Wolf would give them a look that put the fear of God into them."

I never knew any of those guys in that famous photo. I'm content in knowing I was a tiny part of it. That's why I hope this series can capture the essence of these now legendary characters. In 2000, the A&E Network premiered their documentary, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll, at the Cannon Center. There was a meet-and-greet beforehand, and I waited my turn while former Sun luminaries surrounded the great man. Finally, I was able to say, "Congratulations, Mr. Phillips. This is really exciting." He looked at me askance and asked, "Randy, how long have we been knowing each other?" I did some quick math and said, "I guess about 35 years." He smiled and said, "Don't you think you could call me Sam?" I instinctively replied, "Sure, Mr. Phillips." I trust this mini-series will treat him with the same due respect.

Randy Haspel writes the "Recycled Hippies" blog.

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