For James Barry, the opportunity to portray Carl Perkins in Million Dollar Quartet (opening tonight for a weekend run at the Lexington Opera House) meant being able to re-introduce audiences to a rock pioneer whose legacy has often been overshadowed by the other three singers.
“Playing Carl Perkins is especially an honor because he tends to be the member of the Million Dollar Quartet that folks don’t know as much about,” Barry said. “His career didn’t really explode in the same way it did with the other three. So I take great pride in being able to share part of his story and his music with people who maybe didn’t know as much about him.”
Million Dollar Quartet musical director and B549 co-founder Chuck Mead, who became close friends with Perkins before his death in 1998, added, “The tribute to just how important Carl Perkins was, for me, came when I was over at his house. On the wall were four Carl Perkins Fan Club cards signed by their members: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. They recorded more Carl Perkins tunes than any other outside artists. Yet he is a towering figure that a lot of people don’t know. To me, I can’t imagine a world without Carl Perkins because that’s just the way I grew up. Sure, with people in our part of the country, it’s like that. But up in New York, they don’t know who Carl Perkins is. But they know a little about him after the show.”
Perkins was also the last of the Quartet members to make an appearance in Lexington. He signed copies of his autobiography Go Cat Go (a reference to one of the opening lines in Blue Suede Shoes) at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in May 1996. Among those greeting him was veteran Lexington roots and rockabilly singer Mike Tevis.
“The first things I remember about that night were the blue suede cowboy boots he was wearing,” Tevis said. “I thought, ‘Those are the coolest things I’ve ever seen in my life.’ I was pretty silenced by his greatness, really.”
But Perkins also played icebreaker for the event. When Tevis and several others, including the late local bluesman Joey Broughman, posed for a photo with him, Perkins knew just the thing to get everyone to smile.
“When we were together for the picture, Carl started singing,” Tevis recalled. “I heard, ‘Well-it’s-a one for the money, two for the show,’ right in my ear. So we all got to sing Blue Suede Shoes with him. It was a real moment.
Barry cautions, however, that Million Dollar Quartet doesn’t shy away from the frustrations Perkins felt as his stardom faded while the fortunes of the other Quartet singers rose.
“I do my best to give as many glimpses of that wonderful, generous, selfless, big-hearted guy that everyone who loves Carl Perkins knows is there,” Barry says. “But in the show, Carl is in a tough place.
“Carl was going to play Blue Suede Shoes on The Perry Como Show but got in a bad car accident on his way to New York. Elvis wound up playing Blue Suede Shoes on national television before Carl, so that’s a big point of contention. Carl is also endlessly frustrated by Jerry Lee Lewis through the course of our play, who is just dancing all over Carl’s songs.
“There is reconciliation but also a lot of conflict about Carl deciding to leave Sun Records for Columbia because he feels as though (Sun chieftain) Sam Phillips has given up on him to a degree. That’s part of the dramatic tension of the show, so I don’t get to live as much in that wonderful, generous guy we all know from interviews. It’s really a sad story to tell.”
Mead added, “Everybody at these shows just gets caught up in the whole thing because it is so true and honest and raw. People in theater today maybe don’t get that a lot. You get the big production numbers with something like Wicked, and that’s great. You get a sort of traditional Broadway theater experience that way. But this is just a little bit different. It hits a little bit harder and a little bit faster. Just like rock ‘n’ roll, you know?”
Million Dollar Quartet plays at 8 p.m. Jan.10; 2 and 8 p.m. Jan.11; 1 and 6 p.m. Jan 12 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 West Short. Tickets are $30-$105. Call (800) 745-3000, (859) 233-3535 or go to www.ticketmaster.com