Million Dollar Quartet arrives Tuesday at the Pantages Theatre, in the touring version of the Broadway production. Writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux (the latter conceived the show and directed the original production) were inspired by an impromptu recording session that took place in a studio at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee in December 1956.Â It brought together four American pop icons — Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and the lesser known but equally important Carl Perkins.
When you think about their careers, Mega-Million Dollar Quartet might be a more accurate title. According to various websites, Elvis alone earned well over four billion dollars in his lifetime.
That said, Los Angeles musician Lee Ferris — who plays Carl Perkins and has been touring with Million Dollar Quartet for about 10 months — explains, “In this business, to get long-term work playing my guitar, singing and performing for people all over the country with steady money is just wonderful.”
Ferris was born in Santa Monica and grew up near Abbot Kinney in Venice.Â He auditioned for Million Dollar Quartet [MDQ] last July at the Methodist Church on Franklin and Highland. He had been playing around the LA area in his own band, Freddy & Francine, when a friend who saw MDQ in New York thought he would be perfect for it. “I hadn’t seen the show, but I was familiar with Carl Perkins. I’m a big student and fan of music in general and especially rock and roll, blues and country. It is the bare bones of all popular music we’ve heard over the last 60 years.
“In the casting call, they said to play either an Elvis song or one from that period, so I sang “That’s All Right Mama,” and instead of just playing the original guitar part to back myself, I also showed them I could play lead guitar because that’s such a huge part of Carl Perkins’ role in the show. When I returned for the callback, Chuck Mead, who is musical director, had a guitar with him and we traded licks back and forth and spoke the language of music.”
He auditioned on a Monday, the callback was Wednesday, and Ferris got the offer on Friday. “It was very exciting. The audition and rehearsal process were similar with the looseness and feeling of “˜let’s teach you by ear how the whole thing goes’. We never once looked at a score. You learn by being told what chords to play and when. Chuck is from Nashville where there’s a very specific numbering system they call out to musicians. It was fun because I’m familiar with it from the guitar playing I’ve done over the years. It was like creating a garage band in a very specific way.”
Ferris attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, studying jazz composition, which explains his awareness of American musical origins. “Essentially, it all comes from African American music. These guys were an extension of that and the first to popularize it. Because of race relations in the south, it was white musicians and people like Elvis who made “black” songs popular.”
Do audiences from various parts of the country differ? “Absolutely. For instance, in Florida, because the show takes place in the South, they seem to relate to it better. We’ve always had great responses, but it’s interesting to see how regionally certain jokes land and how scenes play or music is reacted to. Because we are playing live, it’s the sort of show that encourages audience interaction, so if people are used to being in a “˜theater’ they tend to be more polite and that makes it harder to feed off the audience’s energy.”
Paul McCartney once said, “If there were no Carl Perkins, there would be no Beatles.” Ferris agrees, “That’s very true. The biggest fan of Perkins was George Harrison, their lead guitarist. Perkins wrote Blue Suede Shoes in 1955 and recorded it in 1956. It was really big on the radio in England and the Beatles picked up on it. Harrison liked Carl’s guitar playing, so he tried to take as much of it as he could to use in his own work. The Beatles covered three Carl Perkins songs on their first two albums.”
Since Perkins doesn’t have an extensive film legacy, Ferris had limited access to footage of him in performance. “Basically, I looked at YouTube and also watched film of the other three guys to figure out how they moved and acted. I read a biography and Perkins’ autobiography, then studied a bit of video with Rob Lyons, who did the role on Broadway. I’m pretty well versed in this genre but I had to learn specific things our musical director taught. The development of my character actually happened a couple of months into the run. We’re not trying to do impersonations. We portray a bunch of guys who are real human beings hanging out in a room and jamming like musicians often do.”
Speaking of guys with guitars jamming, is Ferris aware of some negative press and blogging with the term “WGWG” (wigwigs), referring to the last five winners of American Idol who were “White Guys With Guitars”? He laughs. “No, I hadn’t heard that term and I don’t watch those shows.” He sounds passionate, so I ask Ferris to share his thoughts. After a deep breath, he exclaims, “Well! I think it says a lot when the biggest vehicle for a pop star is a reality show that is somewhat scripted and dictated by the producer’s desire to make money. Money has always been at the base of the American recording industry. It is at the base of Hollywood. I’m from there. I understand it. My father is a cinematographer so I grew up in it. It’s a huge theme in our show and an inescapable reality, but I will say this — if the biggest vehicle to create a pop star is American Idol, it doesn’t leave the options very wide open, and that is why you get ‘WGWG’. Whether it’s a backlash or not, it becomes a form that tells people this is acceptable, this is how you should act and behave, so everyone just follows it.”
Ferris makes a great point when he compares the route taken by artists in the ’50s. “What’s unique about these four MDQ guys in 1956 is they are from a small record label in Memphis. They followed their hearts and Sam Phillips, the owner and impresario of Sun Records, was able to look at these men and say, “˜You sound different; you have a unique voice; no one has ever heard of it and it may create some revolution or backlash from the establishment, but I am willing to take a chance on it.’”
The world has obviously changed since the ’50s and often operates by committee. “Agreed. I think the major cookie-cutter style you see on shows like American Idol produces people who are sounding, looking and becoming the same. There’s no individuality celebrated and for me, that’s the biggest contrast. It scares me. It’s something I don’t resonate with. To be perfectly honest, the Broadway world I’ve been thrust into was out of my purview and I never expected to be considered an actor. Acting was something I’d done before, but in my mind, I was a musician foremost.”
He adds, “At the very least, the thing to be respected about American Idol is these people are singing and playing live ““ whether they are ‘WGWGs’ or not.Â I’m a huge proponent of anyone learning how to play an instrument and playing it live in 2012. There are so many auto-tune artists and people who are fabricated through technology like Tom Cruise in Rock of Ages, who is being sold to us as a great singer. It is a complete and utter lie. He does not sing well. He is out of tune even by technology! Our show is a complete contrast. We all get up there every night and play live, eight shows a week. I believe if you learn to do something very well, that should be celebrated in our culture and not the mediocrity of the technologically-enhanced middle-of-the-road, lack of instrumental chops…” He trails off for a moment, then adds, “You obviously hit on a very passionate place in me.”
Is Ferris an artist following his dream? “As a songwriter, singer and guitar player, I feel the dream chose me when I was very young. I’ve tried to walk away from it because of the realities. How do I make a living doing this? But it keeps pulling me back. I love it in its pure form. I had a choir teacher as far back as high school, when I was on the baseball team and not on the path to be a singer. She heard me sing and encouraged me. In fact, she came to see the show when we were in Salt Lake City and that was very special, because it reminded me there was someone who planted those early seeds — someone who said, “˜You could be doing this professionally, if you wish’.”
Ferris played Berger in Michael Butler’s 2007 LA Weekly award-winning production of Hair at the Met in Los Angeles. He remains close to the other cast members. “I’ve had a lot of self-doubt and challenges overcoming my own fears about it all. That group of people from Hair and my band-mate in Freddy & Francine have never stopped supporting and encouraging me. I never expected to do musical theater at this level. I know it’s not pure musical theater in that the music doesn’t propel the plot, we play all the instruments, and there are other differences, but that being said, it’s fascinating to me how many people have come out of the woodwork recently to say I should audition for more big shows. My friend, who saw MDQ in New York and played opposite me as Sheila in Hair, saw things in me that I was unable to see, told me to audition, and I’m very grateful for that. In fact, all my friends from that show are coming to see us at the Pantages one evening, so that should be a fun night.”
The Pantages is a unique and iconic Los Angeles venue.Â “Growing up in LA, I’ve driven by it a thousand times. I saw the revival tour of Hair there, so I’m excited about performing at the Pantages. I think of it as the place to see professional theater, other than the Ahmanson downtown. It’s one of the best, so I’m honored and flattered I get to do this. I feel humbled by it because it’s a really big deal and more than I ever expected.”
I interviewed Million Dollar Quartet director Eric Schaeffer, who also helmed the recent Follies revival, on opening night of the Follies run at the Ahmanson. He said he planned to check up on MDQ before the tour opens in LA.
Speaking about Schaeffer, Ferris says, “He gives us such a small amount of input, yet what he does changes such a large amount of the overall nuance of the show. By that I mean, he is so efficient in what he does with creating moments in a show that is basically static — there is one set for the entire evening. He focuses on characters when they are not speaking and keeps the movement and pacing alive. How do you take the reins of the show so, if you feel the audience is starting to flow, they stay with you? It is that nuanced sort of direction, which really helps. Both he and Chuck Mead are our buddies and that’s a nice way to work. They’ve done the show many times with different companies, so they know how to let it be its own animal. There is an improvisational aspect to music and everyone has a different way of interpreting it. They allow that to happen so our individual personalities come through.”
I notice this recent breakthrough with Million Dollar Quartet has not diminished Ferris’ excitement or gratitude for help received along the way. What would he say is the most important thing he has learned that will help forge a happy life in this business?
He takes a moment before responding. “The biggest thing I’ve gained is a sense of professional confidence. By that I mean, no matter my moods, my fatigue level, the realities of the day-to-day business ““- our schedule is rigorous and there are details I don’t care to get into — but, despite all those things, I now know I have the discipline and professionalism to show up every night and give a great performance. I have a larger sense than I did before of my own personal worth as a performer.
“Having done a lot of different projects that never required me to show up and do eight shows a week, and amassing my past experiences along with this year’s, I’m aware of my worth and value to any company who would hire me. I also think that balance is the key to happiness in this business.
“I can’t be a musician all the time. It’s important for me to have other things in my life. I’m very interested in different ways of exercising, spirituality, reading and meditation. I’m interested in Buddhism and I meditate as much as possible. This year has been a challenging one in regards to my own personal practice of inner calm. Fostering other interests is important, because when an individual makes their passion their livelihood, it is sometimes hard to separate everything, and the individual can become lost. I’ve experienced bits of that, so balance is key.
“I’ve been able to sustain a really wonderful relationship with my girlfriend in Los Angeles. She has come out to visit a lot and she’s a very independent person. Having her as a supportive entity in my life is a big contribution to me having a life outside entertainment. And, going forward I’d like to make sure I always have a personal life.”
A quote by Carl Perkins cleverly explains the music of this prolific rock and roll quartet: “If it weren’t for the rocks in its bed, the stream would have no song.”
Million Dollar Quartet, Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Opens Tuesday. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 6:30 pm. Closes July 1. www.BroadwayLA.org. 800-982-2787.
***All Million Dollar Quartet production photos by Jeremy Daniel