Rockin’ And Rollin’ In Santa Barbara

Visiting Santa Barbara, California, I was offered a ticket to last night’s performance of the traveling theatrical production Million Dollar Quartet. It is unlikely that I would have sought out a rock and roll musical, but my hosts took me along. The magnificent Granada Theater on State Street was nearly overflowing. The crowd’s appearance indicated that most people in the audience were of high school age when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis were in the first wave of rock shock troops. They and Bill Haley stormed popular music as elements of rhythm and blues, country and pop music coalesced into early rock and roll. America’s culture—and eventually that of the world—was destined to change forever. The musical emphasizes again and again in taunts by Presley, Perkins and Phillips that predictions of the early death of rock and roll were flat-out wrong.

l to r Lewis, Perkins, Presley, CashMillion Dollar Quartet’s story revolves around a day in 1956 when Lewis, Perkins, Presley and Cash (pictured left to right) met in Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio in Memphis. Presley had left Sun for RCA. Cash and Perkins were about to defect to Columbia Records. That sets up tension as Phillips, realizing that all three of his big stars are gone, determines to groom Lewis, a zany ball of fire, to be his next big recording success. In the course of 90 minutes or so, we heard two dozen songs including “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Hound Dog,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Long Tall Sally.” The actor-musicians who played the rock performers were uniformly effective in their roles. The opening announcement emphasized that there was no lip-synching or air guitar; the playing and singing on stage were the real thing. Cody Slaughter had Presley’s moves down cold and frequently caught his inflections. John Countryman captured Lewis’s borderline manic personality. James Barry had Perkins’ mixture of belligerence and sweetness just right. Scott Moreau was touching in his representation of Cash’s rumble of a voice and his peacemaker personality. Vince Nappo played Sam Phillips, the self-made blusterer whose cajoling, pleading and threatening were necessary to rein in the egos of his star performers.

The production was perfect in every respect— sound, lighting, pacing, script and performance. So why did I leave the building disturbed? It was because a brilliantly realized theater microcosm had encapsulated a phenomenon that 57 years ago established a lowest common denominator. The rock mentality spread so fast and so wide that every aspect of popular culture was diluted or distorted. The power of music to direct lives and attitudes has never been more starkly demonstrated than in rock’s influence not only on music but also on literature, theater and film, on sexual mores, on the general capacity or willingness of people to make subtle distinctions in civil discourse, on the flavor and fabric of modern life.

The program notes for Million Dollar Quartet conclude with a double-edged fact:

In his rudimentary, one-room studio, Phillips looked for innovation, not imitation. The music he recorded transformed the cultural landscape of the twentieth century, and its reverberations are still felt today.

Are they ever.

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  1. Mark Mohr says

    I’ve enjoyed the Granada Theater in Santa Barbara many times over the years and loved your take on “Million Dollar Quartet”. It made me think about the roots of different music I enjoy, and reminded me how thoroughly entertaining the documentary “Muscle Shoals” is to music fans of all genres. It was a mesmerizing look at how much incredible music came out of two small recording studios in one small Alabama town. The movie ran only 111-minutes, but I was enthralled by every second. It could have lasted another hour and I would have sat in the movie theater, transfixed. It was a good reminder to me to keep my ears (and my mind) open to all kinds of different music!

  2. says

    In 1968 I worked on a rock version of Othello in which Jerry Lee Lewis played Iago. I’m not making this up. He showed up on time, knew his lines and was perfectly well behaved the entire run. Surprised me, too.

  3. says

    “… a phenomenon that 57 years ago established a lowest common denominator.” “…every aspect of popular culture was diluted or distorted”

    How true. And how sad that even that low standard is seldom achieved. You don’t hear the aspirants even say, “I want to be a Rock Musician”. It’s, “I want to be a Rock Star”.

  4. says

    If you look at the ’50s Memphis guys represented above as Rock ‘n’ Roll then you must admit it was the Brits of the ’60s that created ROCK-a very different strain. To these ears there is a purity to the ’50s stuff but not the ’60s stuff…And to see you lump the music of those four guys into “a lowest common denominator” bag is surely mistaken. But then again, perhaps when it comes to this music I’m just a “mouldy fig”.

  5. dick vartanian says

    Therein was the true beginning of the dumbing-down of America. And since it is perpetuating itself and is therefore gathering momentum and followers, it’s probably going to be around a long time. Fortunately for me that won’t be a long time. I once said in a class paper that class itself was never meant for the masses but for a select few. Where there is no comprehension there is no conversation. Alas and alack, oh woe is me.

  6. David says

    Phillips may have been looking for “innovation, not imitation” but one of the mysteries of our time is the enduring popularity of Elvis imitators. Corporate event planners wouldn’t dream of booking entertainment without including one. One promoter came up with the idea of combining this gimmick with a more recent vogue for singing trios that followed the success of the operatic “Three Tenors” and came up with the “Three Elvises.” This required three imitators: a young sexy one, a fat sequined one, and a transitional model.
    There’s no question those ‘50s promoters were looking for a lowest common denominator. Gerry Mulligan said of the man who invented the Top 40 radio format, “It’s rather remarkable, he succeeded in destroying radio and music with one idea.”

    However our modern promoters have found lower denominators.

    The late rocker Lou Reed reportedly once said that all you need for rock music is one chord and that if there are more than three, then it’s jazz. At least they were using those three chords and a bit of melody. Rap and hip-hop ‘artists’ have largely dispensed with harmony and melody altogether and often rely entirely on mechanically generated rhythm to support angry yelling.

    Of course some genres of contemporary pop still use chords and melodies but these have become secondary to visual presentation. Young Elvis only needed to swivel his hips but for a modern ‘act,’ leaping about the stage is mandatory and a large scale production will also need dancers, laser light effects, giant video screens, pyrotechnics, simulated sex acts, etc. It’s easy to get nostalgic for the days when music was enough.

  7. Mike Harris says

    The takeover of international culture by the rock mentality represents the triumph of ugliness and malevolence in human affairs. The ubiquitous gesture whereby fans at rock concerts extend one arm above their heads at the conclusion of each number is reminiscent of what historical political movement— let’s see, does Germany in the ’30’s-’40’s come to mind. The gesture seems to say “I’m here, I belong, I will go wherever you lead me!” The very antithesis of the jazz spirit of freedom and individual expression.

  8. says

    It was not entirely the music’s fault. Rock’n’roll should have been a sort of instant folk music for the working class, or just party music; there is nothing inherently wrong or demeaning about the early rock’n’roll hits. But there were many other factors in play. The baby-boomers were coming of age, rock’n’roll was like cheap candy to them, and they were indulged by their parents, who had grown up during the Depression. And they were a huge economic force: broadcasters and record companies quickly caved and made huge amounts of money, which distorted those industries permanently. And then there was technology: the throw-away plastic 45rpm record was just the beginning; it used to be that songs were made up around the campfire, most of them quickly forgotten; nowadays any kid can compose music on his laptop, and it is copyrighted, recorded and “broadcast”… And we are all afloat on a sea of shit.
    Don’t blame it on “I Walk The Line” or “Blue Suede Shoes”.

  9. Peter Levin says

    I am an ardent fan of this blog–perhaps the best-written of any on in the Internet–but not of the third paragraph of this post. The lowest common denominator existed long before 1956. If you’d like a reminder of why rock and roll found fertile ground, take a look at Billboard’s list of the top songs of 1955, While I have no plans to see Million Dollar Quartet, I’d take Jerry Lee Lewis over Mitch Miller, Roger Williams, and Les Baxter–who collectively epitomized dumbing down–any day. There has always been what Duke Ellington called two kinds of music–good, and the other kind. We each have our own lists of the good and the other kind, of course, but I defy anyone to come up with a lot of good music on that pre-Million Dollar Quartet Billboard list, and I’d suggest that with the advent of rock and roll the pop world got what was coming to it.

  10. David says

    I notice that Sinatra’s “Learning the Blues” made it to #14 beating out both versions of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett!” And if you think that EZ listening stuff was bad, you should check out some of the stuff that was popular in the ‘20s – songs soggy with sentimentality sung in quavering falsetto. The difference between bad music of the past and that of our modern video-centric age is that the old stuff faded away but the new stuff just seems to stick around forever. I remember seeing Kiss on tv when they first came out in the ‘70s and thinking that they would last six months at the most. Today they are cultural icons, enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and reanimated regularly by a host of “tribute bands.”

  11. Anonymous says

    To David, above…

    The difference between the “soggy and sentimental” music of the previous era, and that of the rock era is the rock era’s moralizing tone – righteous and moralistic, as if speaking for a whole generation, and, simply, against its parents, and with ardent arrogance… and no sufficient justification (aesthetically). Mr. Ramsey’s point about about rock’s influence infecting literature and even social expectation and interaction is unfortunately profound…

    Why rebel against Sinatra and the composers he championed (Van Heusen, Kern, Arlen) – why rebel against Irving Berlin? Why rebel against the modernism of pure jazz: THOSE are the cats who already WON THE REVOLUTION for all of us. Stuff that will never, ever, date. So, what were they rebelling against? The fight had been won already.

    Music must be judged PURELY aesthetically – false, immature moralization – gesture and emotion, is no substitute for great music (did you read about and then hear the excerpted Bill Holman clip, above, just for example?).