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Acting like you’re famous and wishing you were: The Million Dollar Quartet

3 Sep
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Actor/musicians (from left) Brandyn Day as Jerry Lee Lewis, John Michael Presney as Carl Perkins, Ari McKay Wilford as Elvis Presley and Sky Seals as Johnny Cash

If you’ve been to a minor league baseball game, you know it’s tame fun with a hint of sadness. What’s sad is that many of the wildly ambitious and talented players will never hear the roar of a real crowd or get the glory that accompanies fame.

For me, the experience is similar to seeing a Broadway show at a regional theater. The one difference is that on good nights the actors at a regional theater do hear the roar, a sound satisfying beyond money. Still, after the curtain falls, you’re in a bar wearing street clothes and looking normal and someone asks what you do for a living and you’re afraid they’ll laugh if you say you are currently performing on stage as Elvis Presley.

At the Bucks County Playhouse this weekend in New Hope, Pennsylvania, I saw not only Elvis but actors portraying Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. This 50s-era group of rock and roll royalty once came together by chance at a small recording studio called Sun Records. For a few brief hours on Dec. 4, 1956, they formed what came to be known as the Million Dollar Quartet.

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That was the show I saw, “Million Dollar Quartet.” It was based on the recordings the four made under the guidance of legendary producer Sam Phillips. When I walked into the theater my first impression was that the set, a recreation of Sun Records, looked really good. Knowing little about what I was to see and hear, I was even more impressed when a Playhouse employee announced that all music would be live and performed by the actors on stage. Nothing had been prerecorded.

As I waited for the show to start, I assumed the audience would be kind but not overly enthusiastic, mainly because it was a very old audience. More than a few people had walkers and canes and I wasn’t feeling too good myself. When the music started playing – there are 22 numbers in the show – I was relieved that the reaction was, if not effusive, at least respectable.  The performances, however, were so good that younger people might have been up and hollering. Even so, I was confident the people who created the show were experts at pacing and that we weren’t supposed to really let go until the end. This turned out to be true.

A few points in general about the show, which continues thru September 29: Johnny Cash didn’t look much like Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis came off too much like Harpo Marx, but as a regional show is was worth the ticket price. As one of those so-called jukebox musicals, songs dominated over plot. A minimal story line involved Sam Phillips’ struggle over whether to sell out to RCA; Johnny Cash’s worry about telling Sam he was leaving Sun for Columbia Records; and Carl Perkins’ anger at Elvis for recording his song, “Blue Suede Shoes.”

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From left, the real Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash

In the end, everyone came together in mutual respect, understanding and friendship. This fresh harmony allowed the actors to finish in concert style with three strong numbers. Right before the concert, there was a touching bit that probably doesn’t sound touching if written about. Sam Phillips, the record producer, asks the four boys to pose for what he says will be an historic photo. They pose, Sam shoots, and the actual photo the real Sam Phillips took on Dec. 4, 1956 comes down from the ceiling. Everyone claps. Some tear up.

The concert consisted of  “Hound Dog” by Elvis, “Ghost Riders In the Sky” by Cash and “See You Later Alligator” by Perkins. These numbers were clearly full-tilt/high energy and the crowd, some with walker assists, finally got on its feet and went nuts. After “Alligator,” the boys proudly marched off stage and Sam Phillips urged us to demand an encore, which we already were doing.

The boys came back. They ripped it up and shook the house with Jerry Lee Lewis doing “Whole Lotta Shakin.” Sam Phillips, who so far had only dialogue and narration, coolly pulled out a harmonic and gave an incredible mouth organ solo.

It all ends, and we cheer loudly. This was the best part because you could see the actor/musicians break character, glance at each other in unexpected ways and silently say with expressions of delight and satisfaction, “Seems like we did pretty good tonight.”

The loving reception gave them hope that even if they are in the minors now, one day soon they could be called up.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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Does anyone remember John and Peter’s bar and the great Johnny’s Dance Band?

24 Mar

Is the son of a god a god? The problem of famous sons

13 Apr

 

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In Bob Dylan’s remarkable autobiography, “Chronicles Vol. 1,” there is a retelling of the evening he went to see a performance by Frank Sinatra Jr.

 

It was an unusual turn in the book. After reading about the young man from Minnesota finally winning the day amongst all the competing voices of Greenwich Village, we have him stopping in – very deliberately – on someone so apart from folk culture that the attraction cannot immediately be understood.

 

Dylan very much liked the performance. He liked the voice and style of the man who could never, ever, stand outside his father’s shadow. In the book, Dylan expresses true sadness for the predicament of the junior Sinatra, perhaps knowing that someday his own children would face this struggle for meaning, purpose and acceptance.

 

bobdylan1I’m not sure why, but we expect greatness from the off springs of the great, or at least some semblance of distinction. And like Dylan, we take the disappointment to heart.

 

There was a great man of jazz that many young people may not know. His name was Charlie Parker, but everyone called him “Bird.” He played the saxophone and was an incredible innovator and force in the world of music. “Birdland,” a jazz club in New York, was named in his honor.

 

Frank-Sinatra-jrJust recently Charlie Parker’s son died and I read his obit. I hadn’t known this man even existed, but apparently he lived a couple towns over from mine, in Lansdale, Pa. Learning of his simple, pedestrian life, one of relative failure, troubled me.

 

The great man’s son – Charles Baird Parker — had for a time worked in the bakery of his local supermarket. But for many years prior to his death he was unemployed. He lived off the royalties of his father’s music.

“The jazz world expected Baird to fill Bird’s shoes,” his late mother, dancer Chan Woods, wrote of her son. “Those expectations almost destroyed him.”

 

I’m sure his father, who died in 1955 at age 34, wasn’t around much to guide him. Bird, for all his success with music, had nearly destroyed himself with drugs and alcohol. Sometimes he would play on the street for drug money. It is even said that he once pawned his instrument.

 

Yet Bird is a music god, and the common belief is that the son of a god also deserves worship. Because it is impossible to worship a supermarket baker, we end up feeling sorry for the baker and for the god.

 

The obituary did not list the time and date of the funeral. Had it done so, I might have gone. I can’t say why. It would have been strange … about as strange as Bob Dylan going to a performance by Frank Sinatra Jr.

 

Lanny Morgnanesi

 

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A musical legacy: Black, proud, loud and wet

18 Mar

Hard work is to be admired, as is James Brown, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

There’s a new biography out on Brown, who was also known as the Godfather of Soul. The book is by RJ Smith and called, “The One: The Life and Music of James Brown.”

Dan DeLuca, in a review that appears today in the Philadelphia Inquirer, repeats an anecdote from the book illustrating the intensity of Brown’s performances. The story had the entertainer playing in Tbilisi, Georgia, in the former Soviet Union, where a swimming pool separated the audience from the stage. As the show peaked with the number, “Sex Machine,” Brown – at age 73 – leaped into the water. He sank, and band members jumped in after him.

Wet, the entire ensemble finished the show.

According to DeLuca, Brown would sweat so much on stage that band members couldn’t avoid sliding on the drippings. After shows, Brown was rehydrated with an intravenous hook up.

Brown was a perfectionist and very tough on his musicians. He’d fine them for playing the wrong notes, DeLuca reports. He wanted to be the best. After Elvis died, Brown was given a private viewing of The King and was heard to have said, “Elvis, you rat. You’re not number one anymore.”

The book apparently paints James Brown as self-centered (his hair was done three times a day) and non-empathetic. But he rose from poverty, took nothing and – from what I understand – gave a lot of money away to help children, lectured to school kids on the importance of education (he had little) and was a social activist credited with preventing riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King. (He agreed to a rare television concert the quelled anger and took people off the streets.)

He was patriotic, but bitter. Once asked to give advice to a rising Tiger Woods, Brown said, “Get him to understand how vicious this world is. Everything in this world disappears and vacates.”

Add to his many credits: Philosopher.

Hey, Hey I’m a Monkee!

1 Mar

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The Associated Press obit on Davy Jones, lead singer of the Monkees, used the adjective “pre-fab” to describe his band. When it was assembled by television executives trying to rip off the Beatles – their charm, their wit and their movie “A Hard Day’s Night” – the search was for actors, not musicians. Oddly, they came together pretty well as a band, with remarkably good songs. It wasn’t until today that I realized some of the top people in the business were providing them with material and musical assistance.

The AP obit mentions such helpful luminaries as Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond, Billy Preston, Ry Cooder and Neil Young.

How can one not succeed with that kind of support?

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