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Memphis on Broadway

Two Broadway musicals prove that boomer nostalgia is even more eternal than Elvis.

Memphis Shubert Theatre

Million Dollar Quartet Nederlander Theatre

Anyone in denial about the demise of the record business will find on Broadway these nights proof of death more conclusive than the disappearance of music stores from the malls or the elimination of DJs from radio stations. Two musicals staged this yearMemphis, which won the Tony Award for Best Musical, and Million Dollar Quartet, which is set in the same city in the same period and deals with many of the same themes—verify the extinction of the old-school music industry by showing it to exist now solely as sentimental myth. Having always been a middlebrow outlet of attraction for middle-class tourism, Broadway excels at packaging nostalgia as popular art. Like the vendors set up under their marquees, Broadway theaters are in the souvenir business, and the hollow plastic objects presented as rock musicals at the Shubert and Nederlander theaters are mementos of a pop culture past that never really was.

Both Memphis and Million Dollar Quartet are set in a time a bit more than fifty years ago—that is, a bit more than fifty years after the year 1900. They take place at the equinox of a hundred-plus-year period that most of us today tend to conceive as comprising the whole history of popular entertainment. (According to Playbill, the time of Memphis is “The ’50s,” and Million Dollar Quartet is loosely based on an actual event that took place on December 4, 1956.) Both shows deal with the early days of rock and roll. Memphis involves a fictional disc jockey inspired by Dewey Phillips, a real-life white boy who spun black music for teenagers of both races; and Million Dollar Quartet centers on the record producer Sam Phillips, another white Memphis music-business professional with a shrewd interest in black culture, who launched the careers of the show’s titular quartet of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash. (The two men named Phillips were not related, though they were friends and, briefly, business partners.) The world of these people is as distant from contemporary experience as vaudeville and silent movies were from life in the mid-1950s. Indeed, the parallel stories of Memphis and Million Dollar Quartet have about as much cultural resonance today as The Vamp, a show about a silent star played by Carol Channing, and Ankles Aweigh, a throwback to the burlesque era, had bearing on their day when they opened on Broadway in 1955.

To aging baby boomers, whose availability of time and cash make them ideal Broadway customers, the focus of these shows on the birth of the modern musical age has a flattering allure. It reinforces a solipsism that hardly needs the boost, advancing yet again the boomers’ fantasy that the world was born with them. I say this with no special pride in being over fifty myself. I don’t mind the age, at least not most of the time; but I feel embarrassed sometimes to be part of a generation whose vainglory is such that we fill theaters every night to see shows aggrandizing the circumstances of our enthusiasms—even worthy enthusiasms like rock and roll—in the heroic terms of myth. Elvis may have been “the king,” but he was not God, and it is the arrogance of my own age to think that everything of value and meaning arose with his kingdom just because we came along at the same time.

Memphis serves as the setting of both shows because of its critical function in rock history as the provenance of both Dewey Phillips’s show on WHBQ radio and Sam Phillips’s label, Sun Records, which recorded the pivotal white rockers as well as their black predecessors Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, among others. For the prologue to Last Train to Memphis, the first book in his fine two-volume biography of Elvis, Peter Guralnick chose to describe the day in 1950 when Sam Phillips first met Dewey Phillips. In Guralnick’s elegant and affectionate account, Sam “wanted so badly to meet” Dewey to share their common passion for African American music and culture. Sam Phillips explained to Guralnick that it was “genuine, untutored Negro” music he loved, and the musicians he sought were “Negroes with field mud on their boots and patches in their overalls [and] battered instruments and unfettered techniques.” As Guralnick points out, “The music that he was attempting to record was the very music that Dewey Phillips was playing on the air.”

Needless to say, neither of the Phillips men was looking for a singer like Paul Robeson, who was educated at Rutgers and Columbia; or a musician like Louis Armstrong, who had rather fettered technique and who played fastidiously cared-for trumpets; or a composer like Duke Ellington, who would not have gone out in public with a patch on his socks. Sam Phillips, like Alan Lomax before him, performed an invaluable service to posterity by documenting the art of African Americans, as well as that of their white peers and imitators, who were working in a vernacular milieu widely seen by most whites as disreputable—Phillips doing so for small fees to the artists, Lomax under contract to the Library of Congress. Muddy Waters knocked on Phillips’s door and Phillips let him in. Yet Waters, as the one doing the knocking, represented opportunity for Phillips as much as Phillips did for Waters. Moreover, the propositions that “untutored” music is more “genuine,” and that filth or deficiency confer authenticity, have always been racism and classism passing for egalitarianism.

Million Dollar Quartet is set in the Sun Records studio at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, a storefront box considerably smaller and even blander than the set that simulates it on West 41st Street in New York, and the show takes as its inspiration the happenstance events of a Tuesday afternoon long enshrined in rock legend. Elvis Presley, who had already left Sun for RCA and was the hottest thing in the free world, was driving around Memphis with one of his girlfriends, a Vegas showgirl named Marilyn Evans. He noticed cars parked in front of the studio, and the two of them dropped in. Carl Perkins was wrapping up a recording session with his brothers Jay and Clayton on guitar and bass, “Fluke” Holland on drums, and a then-unknown session pianist, Jerry Lee Lewis. For the next couple of hours, Elvis and the boys jammed, just for the kick of making music together—or trying to. Sam Phillips, ever attuned to opportunity, kept the microphone on and the tape rolling.

At one point—how much of the session had progressed has never been clear—Johnny Cash, who was the biggest name on Sun Records at the time, though hardly a rock and roller, came by. Cash, in his memoirs, claimed to have gotten to the studio first. Other accounts have him arriving late in the proceedings, with his wife, to pick up money for Christmas presents. A few additional people, including Charles Underwood, a songwriter working for Phillips, and Cliff Greaves, a minor rockabilly singer, may or may not have played or sung. The uncertain facts, the conflicting stories, and the spottiness of the surviving evidence on tape all contribute to the mystique of the recordings as sacred text.

Several editions of the sessions have been released in various formats over the years, including a “complete” version with forty-seven tracks, currently available on CD and iTunes. The music is wonderful for not being monumental. It is ragged, casual, joyous, endearingly imperfect, and not for a moment phony or inflated. Elvis dominates, singing lead on all but a few songs and calling the tunes—many of them gospel numbers he no doubt assumed all the fellows had learned in church, such as “Jesus Walked That Lonesome Valley” and “Just a Little Talk with Jesus.” They goof around with “Jingle Bells” and “White Christmas” and try three or four times to pull together Chuck Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.” Elvis and Carl Perkins practically fight over who holds Berry in deeper awe. I think no recordings of Elvis, not even the canonical original Sun Sessions, capture him so free and true—unfettered in the best way, in joy, rather than in the way of his final years, in druggy indifference. (I have never been able to hear Johnny Cash on these recordings, though the fault may be my own. Cash always insisted he had been singing with the group, but at a distance from the mike and in a higher pitch than usual for him, to accommodate Presley’s keys, and I will not call a dead man a liar.)

The goings-on that Tuesday in Memphis probably have the makings of an eye-opening evening in the theater,  but after Million Dollar Quartet we may never know. The show uses the fact that Presley, Perkins, Lewis, and Cash were all in same room one day to justify the staging of what amounts to an open studio concert of the four singers’ greatest hits (Perkins’s “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Matchbox,” Presley’s “That’s All Right” and “Hound Dog,” Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ on,” Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line,” none of which any of them did on December 4, 1956). All the music in the show is sung and played on stage, not lip-synched—a fact that an announcer emphasizes before the opening curtain—and it is delivered with polished fervor by four skillful performers who wisely leave enough of themselves in the work to avoid outright impersonation. They prevent their creamy-smooth, milky-white act from hardening into cheese. Still, the whole thing is not much more than a Vegas-style tribute show best suited to the city of Elvis’s undoing.

A narrative of sorts, threaded between the songs, has to do with Sam Phillips’s devotion to recording the music that he loved. “This is where the soul of a man never dies,” the Phillips character says in a line that came from the real Phillips and suggests, in its use of “soul” to evoke both the human spirit and blackness, the tension in Phillips’s way of paying tribute to African American music by having white people record it. Near the end of the show, the playwrights Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott (the latter has written a couple of good books on American vernacular music) have Presley and the boys join in a toast to Phillips: “Here’s to the father of rock and roll!” Even after an hour of watching the glorification of Phillips for his having recorded a quartet of four great white voices of the early rock era, the line struck me as dubious, as if fatherhood were a matter not of who planted the seeds—in the case of rock, that would be black R&B artists such as Roy Brown, Wynonie Harris, Ike Turner, and many others—but of who took the baby pictures.

Foremost among those whom Sam Phillips admired was the person who did pretty much the same thing he did, but on the radio: Dewey Phillips. As Guralnick quotes Sam saying of Dewey, “He was a genius, and I don’t call many people geniuses.” Three blocks north of Million Dollar Quartet in Times Square, Memphis uses Dewey Phillips as the starting point for an original musical about the rise of rock in postwar Memphis. Dewey, with nominal tweaking, has become Huey, who, like his inspiration, is a hyperactive, undereducated former department-store record clerk who carries his love for black music over the airwaves, winning both the ire of the white establishment and the hearts of its teenage offspring. Further amours enter the show with the introduction of a sexy female singer who neatly stands in for the earthy, carnal dangers that black music represents to the narrow-minded whites of America in the ’50s and to the show’s equally unenlightened creators.

Memphis was written by Joe DiPietro—a librettist best known for his work with composer Jimmy Roberts on the poppish Off-Broadway musical comedy I Love You,  You’re Perfect, Now Change—and David Bryan, the longtime keyboard player for Bon Jovi. Musically, the show is proficient, often pleasant, and occasionally fun, but for the most part it is numbingly derivative. Every song, and I mean every song, sounds vaguely and sometimes not-so-vaguely like something else. The big ballad, “Love Will Stand When All Else Falls,” is essentially a reworking of “You Light Up My Life.” “Colored Woman” sounds like an outtake from a mid-’70s John Lennon album. Half a dozen of the tunes feel like B-sides of Blood, Sweat & Tears singles, and most of the rest remind me of the things that sitcom soundtrack composers used to throw together when the script called for a song to be played on a radio in the show. They seem almost but never enough like actual songs.

It would be unfair to fault this music for sounding wholly unlike the R&B and early rock and roll that DJs such as Dewey Phillips and Alan Freed, Phillips’s more celebrated counterpart in Cleveland, played on the radio. The songs of Oklahoma! don’t sound like Dust Bowl ballads, and Memphis is supposed to be an original musical. Its failing is its lack of originality. Dewey Phillips, with his ear for idiosyncrasy, would probably not have played these songs.

Like Million Dollar Quartet, Memphis offers a discomfitingly archaic kind of hero: a white man blessed not only with special access to the mysteries of the black world, but also with the power to share the magic of black art with the white masses. For both Huey/Dewey and Sam Phillips, it is white privilege that makes them heroes. Today the particular mechanisms of their privilege—records and radio—seem almost archaic, too. In the contemporary era of social media and aggregated information, there can be no Hueys or Deweys or Sams, and Million Dollar Quartet and Memphis make that seem almost like good news. 

David Hajdu is the music critic of The New Republic. This article ran in the September 23, 2010 issue of the magazine.

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