"I couldn't miss this. I'd be crazy. Something like this might not happen again for 30 years," gushed John Fogerty. Fogerty, one of rock 'n' roll's heroes and the ex-leader of Creedence Clearwater Revival, was wandering around a Memphis recording studio meeting his heroes.
Elvis is dead, but the others all came back: The Man in Black, Johnny Cash. Ol' Blue Suede Shoes, Carl Perkins. The Big O, Roy Orbison. And last, and you'd better not even suggest least, the Killer -- Jerry Lee Lewis. And once again they entered a small, undistinguished building at the corner of Marshall and Union boulevards in Memphis.
About 30 years ago, their careers were launched in this same building, and in a mid-September week, they returned. Fighting through a mob of press and fans outside, Lewis entered first. Then Orbison, then Perkins, and finally Cash. Once inside, Lewis bowed as though he had returned to Mecca.
The neon sign in the window reads as it did in the '50s -- "The Memphis Recording Service." If that rings no bell, perhaps the historical marker outside does. It says this building is the original Sun Records studio where, in 1954, a young truck driver named Elvis Presley recorded his first single. When Presley left that studio on July 5, 1954, with a piece of magic called "That's All Right, Mama" on tape, a nation's cultural history was changed forever.
The reunion would be called "historic" a hundred times over, and the evening before the stars returned, Chips Moman sat in an all-night restaurant across from the ancient and luxurious Peabody Hotel. It was Moman, one of Memphis' and Nashville's greatest producers for the past 25 years, who coaxed these four legends of rock and country music back to Memphis and into the Sun studio to record a new album.
In fact, the only precedent for this event is the famous "Million Dollar Quartet" sessions which spontaneously happened in this same Sun studio around Christmas time in 1956. Perkins was recording with Lewis on piano, when Cash and Presley dropped in and the four began an impromptu gospel sing-along that was captured on tape.
"I feel a lot of pressure," said Moman, the strain showing on his weather-beaten face. "You never know how these things will turn out. Everything in this business is a guessing game. That's what makes it intriguing."
"It's going to be hard living up to the public's expectations," said a fit and well-tanned Perkins. "But it's going to be exciting because of the freedom we're going to have. Chips is going to let it ride, let the tape run. He could capture some magic again."
Cash said, "Like Solomon says, we're supposed to enjoy the fruits of our labors. And that's what I'm doing right now. I'm really enjoying myself by taking the luxury of coming over to Memphis, meeting with all my old friends and trying to do something special."
If Moman and his four stars were just after a good commercial record project, a simply professional job, the pressures might not have been so great. But they had reconnected with Memphis' unique musical legacy, summoned up the spirit of their greatest music and were after something more elusive than just hits.
"We all left part of our hearts and souls in Memphis and Sun Records," Perkins explained. "When I drove into town this morning and passed the Sun studio, I remembered 30 years ago when I parked a 1940 Plymouth in front of that building. It's a magic place. It's an emotional high to be part of this project."
With the eyes of Memphis on him, with press gathered from all over the world and with record labels bidding for the finished project, Moman was understandably anxious. He's the one who had to find room on one record for four of the most singular voices and talents in American popular music.
His plan was simple. "We'll just go in there and see what happens," he shrugged. "We'll just ad lib it. That's the way I do most of my sessions. I learned that here in Memphis. Freedom is what started Sun Records."
Moman was not being flippant. He was cluing everyone to the secret of the Memphis sound, a sound that stretches from the city's great blues and jazz legacy through Elvis and rockabilly and Otis Redding and soul music.
Moman was recording Cash, Lewis, Orbison and Perkins here because he feels America's recording centers -- Los Angeles, New York and Nashville -- don't believe in magic. Moman believes that given a little freedom, the best music, the deepest and truest, will flow as surely as the Mississippi heads to the Gulf.
"I've got my bankroll stashed with Chip," said Lewis. "He's my redeemer in this business. Without him I'd just quit. I've never left this town. I've just been waiting for it all to come around so I could record here again. It really can happen again."
When Lewis, Cash, Perkins and Orbison finally got inside the studio, the 18-by-30-foot room looked far too small and modest to be a legend itself. But here is where Elvis recorded his first five singles, where Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes," Cash's "I Walk the Line," Orbison's "Ooby Dooby" and Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" were captured on a single-track Ampex tape deck. That machine, beat up and dusty, sits in the back of the room like a talisman whose secrets have been lost in the age of science. The studio itself is bare; a mobile recording unit has been set up outside.
Finally, Lewis sat at the piano and the three others gathered around him. Lewis struck up "Memphis" and they all started singing. For the first time since 1959, music poured out of the Sun studio. In the back of the room, Sun's original founder and producer, Sam Phillips, smiled, beaming like a religious patriarch who knows his flock has returned home.
Over the next few days, the four men would record old songs and new, as solo artists and in quartet. Throughout, they would work together with a natural harmony that reflects how closely their personal lives and careers have been intertwined.
They were all basically poor southern boys raised on God, music and hard labor. They had few prospects in modern America until Presley cleared the path for them at Sun. Presley's name would be invoked time and time again during these recordings, and few felt that his spirit was not hovering in the studio, the unheard voice leading them all.
Even Lewis, not given to praise unless it's self-directed, said, "When I first heard Elvis Presley's recording of 'Blue Moon of Kentucky,' I thought 'My God, here's the man opening the door.' He was a phenomenon. The most incredible performer that's ever been."
In a week filled with emotion-charged events, one of the most moving involves the memory of Presley. Cash, Orbison, Perkins and Lewis formed a gospel quartet and raise their voices with pentacostal fervor on a beautiful ballad called "Remembering the King." When it was over, the four disappeared into a trailer with Moman to hear the playback. When the five emerged, it was obvious they'd all been crying.
"We've always gotten along and been close," Cash said of the obvious camaraderie the four shared. "We were all struggling when we began in the '50s and I think that we all sense that this Sun music was something special and we wanted to give it our best shot. Even when we all went out on a 30-day tour in 1957, we got along beautifully."
There was a spirit of generosity among the four, and it extended to others in the studio. At one point, Perkins turned to Marty Stuart, a young musician from Cash's band. Perkins said, "I hear you've just signed a record deal with Columbia. You're going to need something." Perkins then handed the young man one of his Fender Stratocaster guitars, as a gift.
Another thing the four men shared from the beginning was almost immediate success, the kind that sent their young heads spinning.
"It's one thing to be picking cotton in a cotton field and looking at a new Cadillac going down the road," explained Perkins later. "It's another when it's you in that Cadillac and you're looking back at that cotton field. That should humble you but, being human, you just think the hits will keep on coming. We all went wild."
The lives of Perkins, Cash and Lewis would all be marked by periods of drug and/or alcohol abuse that, at times, almost destroyed them, not to mention their careers.
"It just happened too fast," recalled Cash, his beefy jowls shaking with thoughts of his near-suicidal past. "I guess we weren't too well equipped to handle it. I was introduced to amphetamines on a tour in 1957. We were driving 600 miles and it felt good so I thought, 'What could possibly be wrong with this?' By 1967, the pills had devastated me. I was ready to die."
Death and tragedy is something else that binds these four men. Lewis has lost two sons and two wives. Perkins has lost both of his brothers, Jay and Clayton. Orbison has lost a wife and two sons, and Cash has seen his older brother and two close friends, Johnny Horton and Luther Perkins, die. As Orbison puts it, "It has made gentler and kinder souls of all of us."
If they were once hell-raisers, only Lewis remains something of an enfant terrible, joking one moment, intimidating the next, demanding attention and then earning it at the piano. He was about to try a song he hadn't performed before, the old doo-wop standard, "Sixteen Candles." With characteristic bravado, Lewis stood and announced, "This is a one-take hit. Now watch me."
Lewis injected an incredible melancholy into the song with some improvisatory vocal asides and a piano solo that seems to talk. At the end, Lewis blew out an imaginary candle and everyone agreed, indeed, it might be a hit.
With Perkins helping on guitar, Lewis also recorded a storming car song, "Keep My Motor Running." Like many rock 'n' roll car songs, the lyrics freely mix the automotive with the erotic. Lewis sneered and insinuated his way through a host of double-entendres before ending the song with a suggestive "turn my engine on, honey."
Outside the Sun studio, with its engine off, sat the 1955 powder-blue Cadillac convertible once owned by Roy Orbison -- and now belonging to Moman. The car is a reminder of those days at Sun when so many hepcats cruised in Caddies. With its sexy front bumpers, soft lines and genuine luxury, the car also reminds one of a time when so much of what America produced seemed cool, soulful and classic. Just like the music pouring out of the Sun studio again.
For the last two days of recording, the scene switched from the Sun studio to the American studio. Sitting in a rundown black section of Memphis, the American studio was the place where, in one 18-month stretch in the late '60s, Moman cut 74 national hits, including a number for Presley. A bigger space was demanded.
If this was a "historic" occasion for Memphis and a "historic" event for rock 'n' roll, then a historic ending seemed fitting. On the last day of recording, John Fogerty, British rock star Dave Edmunds and Ricky Nelson, among others, arrived to help make that history.
For a few hours, while preparations were made for the musical finale, the stars circulated, snapping each other's pictures, getting autographs, sharing stories and forming an impromptu Memphis Music Admiration Society. If Nelson and Edmunds seemed shy and somewhat in awe of these legends, Fogerty was more gregarious, obviously thrilled to meet the men who inspired his career.
When Fogerty was brought over and introduced to Lewis, Lewis shook his hand and, with a devilish smile, said, "What'd you say your name is, man?"
Finally, they are ready for the last number, a lengthy jam on a Fogerty song, "Big Train From Memphis." Ace Cannon was on saxophone and Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns played trumpet. In front of the microphones, there was an embarrassment of vocal riches and talent.
Cash, Fogerty and Orbison shared one mike. Lewis, Cowboy Jack Clement and Sam Phillips, in his recording debut, shared another. Ricky Nelson, Perkins, Edmunds and Marty Stuart of Johnny Cash's band sung at a third. And for harmonies, Toni Wine and June Carter joined the Judds, the mother-and-daughter team that has taken country music by storm.
The song turned into a jubilant musical celebration that became so openly joyous that the band wouldn't end it. While they vamped on and on, Lewis finally found an opening and transformed the song into "Blue Suede Shoes" and then "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." Orchestrating the whole number was producer Moman, whose face was ecstatic.
"It was the highlight of my career," he bubbled later. "No recording has ever meant more to me than this. I can't believe it was reality, not a dream."
For most here, though, the finale was really just a beginning. Underlying this whole event was the idea that this was a new start for Memphis as a recording center. Outside the studio, Sam Phillips, the man who started it all, appeared to be uncommonly moved.
"It's going from here on up," Phillips proclaimed, his voice rising like a backwoods preacher. "Memphis is going to be bigger than ever. Not overnight. This is a long-range thing, but if Memphis can't be a leader again, we've got no business getting back into it. But I know the Delta and its people. We're unspoiled down here. All we have to do is what we've always done. Be creative. Be different."
You could almost hear Elvis say "amen" in the Memphis night air.