It started as a routine day for Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records in Memphis. Carl Perkins, looking for a follow-up to his magical “Blue Suede Shoes,” had a recording session scheduled for Dec. 4, 1956.
Johnny Cash had arrived at the studio early and was prepared to spend the day watching Perkins perform. Cash was a budding superstar at this time, with major hits like “I Walk the Line,” “Cry! Cry! Cry!” and “Folsom Prison Blues” to his credit.
In an effort to beef up Perkins’ rockabilly sound, Phillips brought in local piano pounder Jerry Lee Lewis. At the time, Lewis was virtually unknown outside of the Memphis area, but within a year he would be a national star with “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls Of Fire.”
It was just after lunch when this routine day with three talented young performers in the building would turn into a prominent day in rock ‘n’ roll history, thanks to an unannounced visit by superstar Elvis Presley.
Just a few months earlier, Presley created a national sensation with an electrifying performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The program drew a record breaking audience share of more than 82 percent, a mark that has never been broken. His hit list already included “Love Me Tender,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t Be Cruel” and ““Hound Dog.
A marathon jam session soon broke out and studio engineer Cowboy Jack Clement had the good sense to press a record button before it started, preserving the 46 unrehearsed tracks for posterity from what would become known as “the Million Dollar Quartet.”
At the time, Lewis and Presley were 21. Cash and Perkins were 24.
Today, only the 77-year old Lewis survives. Local music fans had a chance to see all four of the legends perform through the years at the Du Quoin State Fair, JR’s Executive Inn in Paducah, the SIU Arena in Carbondale or the Show Me Center in Cape Girardeau.
Those missing the shows are getting a second chance. Rockabilly Revival, a collection of four of the best impersonators in the world, will make a stop at the Marion Civic and Cultural Center at 7 p.m. Friday, March 8. Tickets are $29, $36, $46 and $56.
“It’s going to be a cool show,” said Shawn Barker of Caseyville, who portrays Johnny Cash. “I think Johnny Cash is more popular today than when he was alive. He appeals to a broad base of fans. He is the original rebel, so the punk crowd loves him. Then you have his original traditional country fans and the folks brought in late in his career by Rick Bubin. He covers all demographics.”
Elvis Presley is performed by Cody Ray Slaughter. John Meuller performs the part of Carl Perkins. Lance Lipinsky captures the essence of Jerry Lee Lewis in award-winning style.
Barker said taking the enormous body of Cash’s work, which included 135 country singles, and reducing it to a pair of 15-minute sets for the show is a daunting task.
“It can be difficult,” he said. “We are trying to stay with his early Sun Records sound with songs like ‘Big River, ‘I Walk The Line’ and ‘Hey Porter.’ I get out of the time frame a little bit sometimes. You can’t do a Johnny Cash tribute without singing ‘Ring Of Fire.’”
An Army veteran, Barker said he doesn’t have many musical ties to Southern Illinois, but he keeps in contact with a military buddy from Anna. He got started in the music business playing coffee houses in the St. Louis area as a solo act.
In 2002, he entered and won a Elvis Presley impersonation contest and travelled the country for the following five years with his show. In 2007, he sent in an audition tape for the part of Elvis in a Hollywood production of “The Million Dollar Quartet.” The show’s producer urged him to submit an additional tape for the part of Johnny Cash, which immediately secured him a spot in the show.
Barker was still booking shows as Elvis, but when he came out as Cash during a costume change, the fans exploded with approval. He quickly phased out the Elvis act and replaced it with The Man in Black Show.
“The show has done really well. It seems to be getting more popular all the time,” Barker says. “In the states, we are spoiled with the flavor of the week. We get oversaturated with entertainment. They keep pumping out music as fast as they can and the quality gets watered down. Cash has an outstanding catalog of timeless material.”
VINCE HOFFARD can be reached at 618-658-9095 or firstname.lastname@example.org.