Million Dollar Quartet and Jukebox Memories
Tue, 09/26/2023 - 3:49pm admin
I have written a number of articles that mention music from the 1950s and 60s, and I am hesitant to revisit the topic, but break out your 45-rpm records and dust off your penny loafers, because I’m about to do it again. Why? Because I recently went to a musical play, Million Dollar Quartet, that for two hours took me back in time to every jukebox I ever sat next to in Shannon or Howell County.
Million Dollar Quartet is a dramatic presentation of an actual event that occurred one afternoon/evening in December 1956 at the renowned Sun Records studio in Memphis, Tennessee, when Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley assembled at Sam Phillips’s recording studio. Reportedly, it is the only time the four stars performed together. Legendary, singer-songwriter, “Cowboy” Jack Clement, who was Sam Phillips’s sound engineer, got it on tape.
It began as a recording session for rockabilly artist Carl Perkins to play with a new Sun Records artist, wild-child piano player, Jerry Lee Lewis. Phillips hoped to reignite Carl’s success of his earlier number one hit, “Blue Suede Shoes.”
Incidentally, in the play, Carl resents that Elvis had sung “Blue Suede Shoes” (Carl’s hit) on the Ed Sullivan show, and that afterwards, many people associated the song with Elvis and not him. Frankly, other than students of rock and roll history, many people still associate the song with Elvis.
As the play progressed, Johnny Cash drops in, and later, Elvis arrives with a girlfriend, and the evening turns into an impromptu jam session of early rock and roll and gospel songs. With only a piano, two guitars, an upright bass, and a drum set, the music and vocals were spot-on.
The actors played their parts so well, from bleach-blonde Jerry Lee jumping on top of the piano to Carl Perkins’s electric guitar riffs and the quartet’s pitch-perfect harmonies, that it felt like an opening scene for the TV series “Happy Days.” When Jerry Lee singled out a sixty-something woman in the front row as he sang “Whole Lotta Shankin’ Goin On,” the unabashed lady showed everyone she could still shake a tailfeather. As Jerry Lee watched her, he fell out of character and broke down in spontaneous laughter.
Although the audience was predominantly gray-haired and vintage, that did not stop standing ovations and enthusiastic “backup” singing to the jukebox gold they heard from the stage.
Sometime during the show, my mind flashed back to 1956 in Mountain View when I first heard the term “rockabilly.” My fourth-grade classmate, Larry Stover, told me he thought he liked rockabilly music the best. I thought he had made up the term. As a native Ozarker, he had an implied superiority when it came to country things, but not about rock and roll.
I had an older, smarter brother, who combed his hair like Elvis Presley and listened to top-40 music, and I had never heard him use that term. However, Larry and I ventured into a café across from Cypress Chevrolet, and the Wurlitzer jukebox displayed a rockabilly promotional sign inside the glass. So, there, Lonnie, he probably thought. And at the time, I would not have known that Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, and Brenda Lee were rockabilly icons.
At various times, by my recollection, Willow Springs had a half-dozen jukeboxes: G&O Café (next to James Chevrolet), K&J Café (the McClellan Building), and the Dariette, plus those in the three taverns and the Aztec Club. And I have musical memories from most of them, including the one in the tavern that my stepfather owned on South Center Street: “Gotta Travel On” (Billy Grammer) and “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” (Johnny Cash), which became my stepfather’s favorite catch phrase. [An interesting mantra for someone who always had a loaded revolver under the bar.]
For non-driving, younger teenagers, the Dariette, located at the northwest corner of West Main and North Ferguson, was the place to get soft-serve ice cream concoctions and to hear rock and roll music on the jukebox. It was not unusual to see a bicycle or two parked outside the building, which in a later life, housed Foster’s MFA Insurance. In 1960, I heard “Only the Lonely” by Roy Orbison (another Sun Record artist) for the first time while at the Dariette. For musical history buffs, Nashville veteran Floyd Cramer played piano for Roy on that number two hit song.
Deanna Collins Corn (WSHS, 1964), who worked at the Dariette the summer before her sophomore year and on weekends afterwards, reminded me that Ross and Cecilia Kilpatric were the owners. She remembers them as “a sweet, trusting couple.” Deanna says, as a 14- and 15-year-old girl, she “took the orders, cooked the orders, cleaned up and closed up.” As a responsible young lady, I suspect that Deanna earned the Kilpatrics’ trust. Her jukebox memory included “I Can’t Help Falling in Love,” a 1962 platinum hit by Elvis.
But once teens got a driver’s license, the jukebox sounds came from the Daisy Queen and the A&W. Of the jukebox at the A&W, former carhop Barbara Sherrill Pigg (WSHS, 1964) says, “I remember someone came and changed out the 45-rpm records periodically.” She also mentioned "Roses Are Red (My Love),” a chart-topping hit in 1962 by Bobby Vinton, as one of her favorites.
Sandy Davidson (WSHS, 1964) says "My Boyfriend's Back," a 1963 hit for the Angels that spent three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, is a song she remembers from her time working at the A&W. Fellow carhop Marilyn Sherrill Cummins (WSHS, 1964), says she liked all the songs from the sixties and adds, “We did ‘boy-watch.’ We knew who was cruising around and with whom.”
Speaking of boy-watching, although Marilyn did not say, she no doubt remembers watching me high-center my parents’ car on the exit curb there. Apparently, I had been girl-watching. Frank David Hicks used Ford dealer Chet Chamberlin’s wrecker to lift the car off the curb.
Classmate Carol Hale Aldridge (WSHS, 1965) who worked at the Daisy Queen says, “So many songs make me think of the juke box at DQ.” A couple tunes from her much longer list included, “Sheila,” a chart-topper in 1962 by Tommy Roe, and “Sherry,” by the Four Seasons, which remained number one for five weeks in 1962.
On a personal note, this article marks the four-year anniversary of The Way We Were column. My first story, “The New Kid in Town,” appeared in the Howell County News on September 18, 2019, and I am grateful for the kind words and support I have received.
I have recently published the first fifty stories in a book, The Way We Were . . . Personal Reflections on Life in the Ozarks, and will be in Willow Springs at Bailey Chevrolet GMC signing copies on October 7, 2023. So, if you are in town for the Bear City Fall Festival, stop in.