RVA meets the faces of rock ‘n’ roll

Austin Walker
Staff Writer

Altria Theater will host Tony award-winning musical “Million Dollar Quartet” Jan. 16 and 17. Photo by Julie Tripp

Next week at the Altria Theater, on Jan. 16 and 17, a reenactment of what may be the most influential night in modern music will be presented.

The critically acclaimed musical, “Million Dollar Quartet,” replays the fateful night in 1956 when music legends Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins met for a jam session.Many consider that night to have had a profound effect on the face of music everywhere, but especially on rock ‘n’ roll.

Colin Escott, the writer of the musical, said in his liner notes of the 2006 reissue of the famous album, “Rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t delivered to us one night in 1955, and it wasn’t white kids singing R&B. Rock ‘n’ roll was born of white gospel, black gospel, old country, new country, doo-wop, blues, pop and cowboy songs. And it’s all here.”

“Million Dollar Quartet,” the musical, was released in 2007 with resounding success, and moved to Broadway in 2010 where it received three Tony awards. Now the touring cast is coming to Richmond, Virginia.

The legendary session depicted in the musical happened purely by a stroke of luck. Carl Perkins went into the studio on Dec. 4, 1956 to record a song with his brothers and was accompanied by the then-unknown Jerry Lee Lewis. Unknown to them, rock star Elvis Presley had come into the studio, listened to some of the music that had been recorded, and decided to join in the jam session. At some point, Johnny Cash came to the jam and chose to play alongside the crew.

The local newspaper, the Memphis Press-Scimitar, was called to report on the event and they ran the headline, “The Million Dollar Quartet.” The name stuck, and the album containing the recordings of the session was released 25 years later under the same name. However unfortunate the delay in release was, the effects of the music stars all playing under the same roof were seen rippling throughout the entire industry.

As easy as it is to play off these names as honky-tonk country, Presley especially is credited as being the most influential character of popular culture of the 1950s. The BBC ranked him the second-best English-speaking singer, behind only Frank Sinatra. Grammy award-winning singer-songwriter and author Johnny Cash is called by many to be the best country music artist to have ever lived. Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis were famous for their revolutionary rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll sound.

And two of these musicians were no strangers to Richmond. Carl Perkins once had a concert at The Mosque in RVA, and Elvis Presley himself performed 15 concerts here from 1955 to 1976 at the Richmond Coliseum, making this an appropriate place for his revival on stage.

The Altria Theater, alongside Broadway in Richmond, is hosting the event which is set to revitalize the souls of the musical legends.

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