Their Day in Sun Records: David Elkins Walks the Line as Johnny Cash with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins in MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET

Posted on: Mar 12th, 2013 By:

The National Tour of MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET (Photo by Paul Natkin)

A fateful winter day when four of rock and country’s greatest sang together is recreated in MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET, the hit musical which plays the Fox Theatre from March 12-17 as part of the Broadway in Atlanta series. The extraordinary recording session on Dec. 4, 1956, included Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash and was presided over by legendary Sun Records owner/producer Sam Phillips. Among the rock hits recorded that night were “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Fever,” “That’s All Right,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Walk the Line,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Who Do You Love?,” “Matchbox,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Hound Dog” and more.

The family of Johnny Cash, in a twist of fate and coincidence, moved to Memphis in the early 1950s. One day he worked up his gumption to show up at Sun and ask Sam for a recording contract. Sam wasn’t interested in the gospel songs that were Johnny’s first love and was rumored to suggest he “go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell.” Johnny says that anecdote didn’t happen, but he did switch to rockabilly, Sam took him on, and he recorded early hits such as “Hey Porter,” “Folsom Prison Blues” and ‘Walk the Line” at Sun. He actually became Sun’s best selling artist and the first to complete an LP.

To find out more about MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET and Johnny Cash’s Sun years, we caught up with David Elkins, who plays Johnny in the national tour company.

David Elkins as Johnny Cash in The National Tour of MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET (Photo by Paul Natkin)

How did you get the part of Johnny Cash?

I answered an open call audition inNew York City. Yes, I was going in solely for the role of Johnny.  I couldn’t begin to do those other guys justice. But I knew what I sounded like when I sang, and I just thought, “I can do that.” I love Johnny and his story. I respect his life’s journey and what he stood for, so it’s a real honor to try and bring a glimpse of that, one slice of time in his life, and share that with people everyday.

Some people may be less familiar with Johnny Cash’s relationship with Sun Records than with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. What will audiences learn about him in MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET that they may not know?

Johnny Cash was there at Sun, but he left for Columbia Records, which is one of the dramatic story points in the show. He wanted to record a gospel album, and Mr. Phillips didn’t want to record it. He didn’t think the kids would buy it, but Columbia said they  would record it. It’s true that when most people think of Johnny, it’s more the “Man in Black” Johnny Cash of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and later AMERICAN RECORDINGS even, with [producer] Rick Rubin. That’s maybe why the Sun Records years don’t stick out as much today to some.

How did you approach playing Johnny Cash?

Instead of tackling the icon and trying to bring all that to the stage in less than two hours, I approached him as a 24-year-old kid from Arkansas who grew up picking cotton. My grandmother grew up 200 miles north of where Johnny was born [in Kingsland], so I heard all sorts of stories about picking cotton, working in the fields, and looking out for rattlesnakes. I thought of those folks who I have met. It made [Johnny’s early life] immediately tangible for me.

What are your favorite songs in the musical?

I really like our Quartet numbers. We do “Down By the Riverside” and “Peace in My Valley.” Those are pretty magical moments when we get to harmonize. And personally I love watching the other guys do their thing. I get to be on stage and watch them. Everybody I work with is so talented. I really love doing “Walk the Line,” too. People really open up to it. The first song I do is “Folsom Prison Blues,” and that song always gets a great reaction. After one show, I talked to a navy midshipman who used to listen to Johnny Cash all the time. He said, while I was singing, he closed his eyes and thought of his friends. I thought that was very genuine and from the heart. Things like that are very special.

I did a show in Durham, NC, and Johnny Cash’s nephew and his family met me after the show. He said that someone had told him he should go see the show. He said he figured that the other guys will be pretty good, but “nobody sounds like my uncle Johnny…but you nailed it.” That was such a blessing to me and a real confirmation of what we are trying to do.

Ben Goddard as Jerry Lee Lewis, James Barry as Carl Perkins, Cody Slaughter as Elvis Presley and David Elkins as Johnny Cash in The National Tour of MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET (Photo by Paul Natkin)

Do you have any ritual for getting in character?

My warm-up consists of singing along to the HYMNS BY JOHNNY CASH album that he recorded shortly after he left Sun. I also watched old videos of his appearances on TV shows such as TOWN HALL PARTY and THE TEX RITTER SHOW and other clips of that era. It is not an impersonation, but I try to channel the feel of those shows. I think about what makes Johnny such a dynamic performer, so earnest and direct with his delivery. He really made each song his own. He was a storyteller. When he covered other people’s songs, he attached an earnestness, just a storyteller’s sensibility to every song. And there’s always that danger, that unpredictability under the surface that I think people are drawn to.

What will audiences be most surprised by?

I think audiences will be surprised by the undeniable impact this one man, Sam Phillips, had on the birth of rock n roll. He really had a gift for pulling new sounds out of young artists, and he recognized the racial barriers in music and helped to knock those down. He’s one of the few people in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that wasn’t a musician. The show really is an ode to Sam Phillips. He really anchors the whole story. The script [by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux] was based on GOOD ROCKIN’ TONIGHT: SUN RECORDS AND THE BIRTH OF ROCK N ROLL by Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins. You can really feel the respect and love the authors have for Sam. It’s interesting to listen to the music of that time. If you listen to what they would have heard on the radio, then you can better understand why what they did at Sun was so revolutionary.

Vince Nappo as Sam Phillips in The National Tour of MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

In MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET, you’ve had the pleasure of performing in a lot of vintage theaters before getting to our Fabulous Fox. Any favorites?

A great part of the tour has been seeing beautiful old theaters. One of the cast members, Katie Barton, who is the understudy for Elvis’s girlfriend Dyanne, is from Atlanta and she told me the Fox is beautiful. There was Proctors Theatre in Schenectady, NY, where Duke Ellington performed and KING KONG played. I liked the Forrest Theatre in Philadelphia. It wasn’t the most beautiful and the boards were a bit creaky, but it takes you back in time a bit and it felt great to be right in the middle of the city. The [former] Hippodrome [ now the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center] in Baltimore was also very impressive and a lot of fun to play in.

Category: Features | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

More Than Still Standing: Melba Moore Talks About Growing Up in Jazz, the Summer of Love, and Living the Dream Again in GOOD GOD A’MIGHTY

Posted on: Feb 16th, 2013 By:

Melba Moore, 1985. Photo credit: James Mitchell.

Legendary R&B vocalist Melba Moore stars as the bombastic director of a Southern church choir in Lolita Snipes‘ gospel musical GOOD GOD A’MIGHTY, playing Feb. 14-24 at 14th Street Playhouse. A hilarious behind-the-scenes look inside a southern African-American church faced with a vibrant new pastor from New York, the play marks a bit of irony in that Melba is a born-and-bred New Yorker herself.

Because Melba is best known for a string of ’70s and ’80s Billboard hits starting with “I Got Love,” it’s easy to forget that her first big break came on Broadway when she replaced Diane Keaton in HAIR. She went on to win a Tony Award for playing Lultiebelle in PURLIE and appeared with Eartha Kitt in TIMBUKTU. Then her recording career took off, she started touring, and would not return to the theater until after a painful break-up with her husband. She used her remarkable life story as the backdrop for a one-woman play, I’M STILL STANDING, and soon was back on Broadway as Fantine in LES MISERABLES. Since then she has continued her comeback, including appearing with Beyonce and Cuba Gooding Jr. in the movie THE FIGHTING TEMPTATIONS (2003) and recording a new CD entitled FOREVER MOORE on her own label, A’Moore Music.

ATLRetro recently had the pleasure of interviewing Melba, and we couldn’t resist not just asking about her role but also her own Retro experiences growing up in a musical family in New York in one of the most exciting jazz music eras, the summer of love, working with Eartha Kitt, and much more. The conversation turned into a who’s who history lesson of some of the top names in recording which we couldn’t be happier to share.

How did you first get involved with GOOD GOD A’MIGHTY?

Lolita Snipes, the producer and writer of GOOD GOD A’MIGHTY, and her partner and husband, Jerome [Snipes],  got in touch with my manager and myself. We met in New York, and she said she had been watching me for quite a long time and knew I would be prefect for the role. I was a little surprised because though I do have a Tony Award for a comedy performance, I haven’t done a lot of comedy. She said the main reason she wanted me for the role was the music. She wanted the Melba Moore sound. She also wanted to make sure born-again Christians were involved in the play, and she wanted me because I had a reputation of being amenable, in harmony with the person in charge. She wanted to make sure that it was a real Christian play with the real Christian spirit, which is love.

You aren’t from the south but you certainly have a lot of experience with New York City having grown up there. Is there anything particular which resonates to you about this story personally?

It’s great in terms of a family culture because pretty much all of us originated from the south because we came here as slaves. We were farmers and eventually moved to the north, and we still have cultural clashes between north and south. Northerners are often considered educated and uppity by Southerners. These cultural clashes are nice food for comedy.

My mother was a professional singer and away all the time so I was raised in New York by a nanny who never learned to read or write, but came from a family of tobacco growers and sharecroppers. She was trying to get off the farm and get a job that was not so hard even if it was as a domestic or nanny. The thing that set many African-American families free was our music and the music industry, so my family was typical of that combination.

Tell us about your part and did you do anything in particular to prepare for it.

THE FIGHTING TEMPTATIONS. Look at the role that LaTanya Richardson – she’s the wife of Samuel L Jackson – played in that. She was feisty, bossy; she runs everybody. She doesn’t care who you are, she’s the boss. She will bring you down to size all the time. She’s a very selfish, mean-spirited ogre. That’s my part.

But it’s not dark or brutal. This is a Christian musical, so we don’t want to tell the bad news. She is not mean or evil. That’s one of the things that sets apart gospel plays or musicals. You’re not telling a negative story nor sympathizing with the bad guy.

This musical just sounds like a lot of fun. Is there a favorite part that you’d like to share?

It’s going to be so much fun. First of all, gospel comedies are the funniest type of comedy, and maybe one of the reasons they are is they don’t pander to the lowest elements of people. They don’t resort to cursing or really poking fun at people. They don’t have to be deep, but really have to be funny. They have to be joyful, really lift your spirits. That’s the point of it.

You grew up in a musical family. Your mother was a singer, your father a saxophonist and your stepfather a jazz pianist. Can you talk a little bit about growing up with jazz in the golden age of the 1940s and 1950s, maybe share a favorite memory?

My stepfather [Clement Moorman] is 97 years old. He still plays the piano and keeps his art. He plays better than ever before. My mother, though, has passed away. I grew up in an environment with a passionate love for music, and in an age when African-American artists had to be 10 times better because of racism. I grew up meeting Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. I thought I was going to be a piano player. I thought I’d be the next Horace Silver. I knew I was not going to be the next Oscar Peterson. My brother and I learned how to play these piano solos because we were so passionately enmeshed in this music. We were equally impassioned by classical music so also Leontyne Price or Marian Anderson. As I look back, it’s not just nostalgia, it just was truly a golden age. I majored in music in high school. I didn’t know if I had enough talent but I knew it was going to be my life’s work. I didn’t know if I would be a musician or singer, but I grew up listening also to Miles Davis and Nancy Wilson. I was totally enmeshed and absorbed in their recording.

Who was your favorite jazz performer in those early days and why? Outside of your family, of course.

They kept changing. Bill Evans and Horace Silver were two of our favorites. We’d sing all the solos. The Adderley Brothers, Nat Adderley, and the sax player Art Farmer. I can’t remember them all. There was just a plethora. I also loved Melba Liston because she had my name. And Ella Fitzgerald. I can sing her solos now, but I couldn’t then.

What was it like spending the summer of love in New York City and ending up cast in HAIR?

It was very unexpected. I was teaching music from kindergarten thru age 12 of high school in northern New Jersey, and I quit because I felt like if I stayed in teaching, I never was going to find out if I had enough talent to be a singing artist. My father took me to New York, where I met Valerie Simpson, who got me involved in overdub singing, At one of the recording sessions, Galt MacDermott, who wrote the music for HAIR, asked us all if we could come and sing for the director, choreographer and producer because they were still looking for strong voices. I was the only one who said yes. It was like I can’t even describe it – moving to another planet.

What was it like working with Eartha Kitt in TIMBUKTU?

She definitely was an icon and an artiste and her own self-person. She was intimidating in a sense. She was so strong and so confident and so good, and my personality was totally opposite. I was just starting to get some confidence now, but I have a gentle body language. We’re both petite women but total opposites. She was a cat and I was a kitty.

You started acting in musical theater in your twenties in HAIR and then winning the Tony for PURLIE, but then concentrated on your music career. How did you end up coming back to Broadway in 1995 to play Fantine in LES MISERABLES?

After TIMBUKTU, I went on tour and had my first hit record. I did 10 to 15 years of recording and touring. Then my marriage to my husband, who had been responsible for my success, disintegrated. During that time, I was trying to stay alive, much less stay in the industry. I did a one-woman play [SWEET SONGS OF THE SOUL, later renamed I’M STILL STANDING], and I began to climb back up the mountain. Richard Jay-Alexander, the casting director for LES MISERABLES on Broadway, saw me in Florida in my own play. He said he came in to see the play., but what he saw different sides of Melba Moore that he had never known. He had only seen me in PURLIE. He didn’t know I had a classical voice, or the other aspects of personality. It was thanks to I’M STILL STANDING that Lolita and Jerome found me, too. It was a wonderful audition piece for me.

You were the first African-American to play Fantine, the role that Anne Hathaway is favored for an Oscar this year. Can you talk a little about that experience?

I was just trying to survive, and then someone takes me and puts me into that role. When I got into it and realized what it was about, I thought, God put me here. How do you go from nothing to a lead role in LES MIZ? It showed me this is my destiny, where my good luck will happen. It was so much more than just playing a role and was a natural one to me.

It seems like certain songs play special roles at different times in one’s life. You have a long repertoire. Is there one song from it that means more now than it ever before, and if yes, why?

There are two songs. One is “I Got Love” from PURLIE, and the other is “Lean on Me,” written by Van McCoy. The longer I sing it, the more that I see that the song is my life. It’s always relevant, and the longer I sing it, because it is about your life going the right way, the more powerful it is again. It doesn’t depend on any age, any gender gap. It’s about people coming together, and the place that unites us is that magic of music which unites us. Some things pass away. With GOOD GOD A’MIGHTY, this play, I am beginning again at a fresh point. All those things that are retro and nostalgic have a fresh life again. That’s what music can be. In pop culture, we try to make things old and passing away, but that’s not what art is. Art lives.

Purchase tickets for GOOD GOD A’MIGHTY here or at the Woodruff Arts Center Box Office.

 

Category: Features | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

© 2019 ATLRetro. All Rights Reserved. This blog is powered by Wordpress