Carl Perkins was there and Jerry Lee Lewis, too. Elvis Presley stopped by and so did Johnny Cash. W.S. (Fluke) Holland was the drummer that December day in 1956 at Sun Studios in Memphis.
"People ask me now: What was it like to be in the studio with all those big stars? It's funny to me because there was no big stars there that night," Holland said last week. "Nobody even thought about being a big star then. Nobody was a big star 'til later."
The session was booked for Perkins to record a follow-up single to his hit "Blue Suede Shoes," with his group, which included Holland.
"The reason Jerry Lee Lewis was there was [producer] Sam Phillips had hired him to play piano," Holland said. "We were just doing a song called 'Matchbox.' And in the middle of the session in walked John and Elvis. We'd worked together [in concert] the whole year before. And when they walked in, it turned into kind of a little jam session. It wasn't any kind of a big deal. The man running the recording equipment, Jack Clements, he turned the machine on and let it run and went next door to the Taylor Cafe to get him a sandwich."
Phillips kept his eye on the clock because new union rules defined the pay for a three-hour recording session. Said Holland: "I was concerned about getting my $11.50."
Despite the casualness, Phillips, one of rock's legendary entrepreneurs, had the sense to call a newspaper photographer. And the photo caption the next day dubbed the Sun Records foursome the Million Dollar Quartet.
In 2010, that recording session -- featuring 40-some country, rock, bluegrass, Christmas and gospel tunes with mostly Presley singing lead -- was transformed into a Broadway musical called "Million Dollar Quartet." The 90-minute, one-act show opens Tuesday in Minneapolis.
The musical takes dramatic license with what happened that day, said Holland, 76, who will discuss his career Monday at the New Century Theatre in Minneapolis' City Center.
"All that stuff with Sam Phillips raising all the Cain, it didn't happen that way. But it made the show exciting."
One spot-on portrayal is Lewis' personality. Was he as crazy back then as Mr. Great Balls of Fire later became known?
"The answer might be "Yeah, he was,'" Holland said of the only living member of the quartet. "He was kind of wild and different."
Two weeks became 40 years
Holland has similar feelings about "Walk the Line," the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic that earned Joaquin Phoenix an Oscar nomination.
"It's a great, entertaining movie," the drummer said. "Every scene in the movie was about the wild and crazy Johnny. I would have liked to have seen a little bit of the good ol' Arkansas country boy that I knew. Even though I would have done it a little different, it created another young audience that probably wouldn't have known about Johnny Cash if they hadn't made the movie."
Holland was hired by Cash in 1960 for a quick run of gigs in New York and Atlantic City. "Those two weeks lasted almost 40 years," he joked.
The drummer played with Cash at Folsom and San Quentin prisons ("it was nothing scary") and on Bob Dylan's "Nashville Skyline" sessions ("that day was another recording session and now it's one of the highlights of my life") and such classics as "Ring of Fire."
Raised in the cotton mill town of Bemis, Tenn., Holland never intended to become a drummer. After graduating from high school, he took a job with an air-conditioning company but he used to go hear Perkins and his two brothers perform at a local club.
"I would sometimes walk up to the upright bass and just keep time [with his hands] on the side of the bass on like an uptempo song. I don't know why I did it," Holland explained. "One Saturday night when they were packing up after a gig, Carl said, 'Hey, we got an appointment with Sam Phillips Thursday. Borrow some drums and go with us to Memphis.'
"I found a guy the next day who loaned me his drums. I had no idea how to do a drum setup. I did them right backwards from what most guys play; I didn't know 'til later that I was wrong. We went over to Memphis on Thursday and played one song. It was the first time I played on a record, and we signed a record contract that day."
Holland became a pioneering rock 'n' roll drummer and the first person to play drums on the Grand Ole Opry.
He never thought music would be his career. In fact, he retired a couple of times -- in 1960 after six years with Perkins and in 1997 after Cash quit touring.
"Then they made the movie 'Walk the Line' and it created a situation that people wanted to see somebody who was in the Johnny Cash band, so I'm still going," said the drummer, who tours with the W.S. Holland Band. "So I'm not going to retire anymore."
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