The greatest day in rock ‘n roll history

“Truly a night to remember!” barks the record producer Sam Phillips, round midnight, as he peers across the sound room at the never-to-be repeated convergence: four supernova stars in the same room at Sun Studio in Memphis, winding up an impromptu jam session. The date: December 4, 1956. The stars: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley.

It happened because Phillips wanted to surprise Johnny Cash with a contract extension, and he chose a scheduled studio session with Perkins as the occasion to do it. Lewis and Presley happened to be around and were invited to join the party. Everyone said yes to fate.

Awkwardly, and unbeknownst to Phillips, Cash had just signed with rival Columbia Records. Tensions torqued up further when Perkins came clean about his feud with Elvis. Seems that Perkins was on the way to his Big Break — he was about to debut his new song, “Blue Suede Shoes” — when he smashed his car and ended up watching from a hospital bed, fuming, as Elvis stole his thunder by singing HIS SONG on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Betrayal. Jealousy. Greed. Way-too-tall hair. Every combustible ingredient you can imagine was in the mix on that storied night. But mutual respect for each other’s talents won out. The four apostles of rock parked their egos, pushed pause on their grievances, and simply celebrated (to borrow Bruce Springsteen’s phrase) “the mystery, the majesty, and the ministry of rock ‘n roll.” They blew the doors off the joint.

At least that’s the way it went down in the Broadway play Million Dollar Quartet, a touring production of which we saw last night here in Vancouver.

No one disputes that these four men were in the room together that day, and they did jam. (There’s photographic evidence.) But it’s clear the writers took a hydraulic pump to the event and inflated it beyond all verifiable recognition. “What we did in the show was take 18 months of history and kind of condense it into one night,” one of them, Colin Escott, told Playbill.

So here’s the question: If four sequoias fall in the forest, and there’s no one around to hear them, do they still make a Big Day?

Gotta admit, I like my historical Big Days to be factual. But who can deny the artistic impulse to … plug the gaps of what’s known with luscious narrative filling?

After all, there are Big Days, and then there’s the idea of a Big Day. Sometimes, either will do to inspire us to make a modest one of our own.

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