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April 20, 2014

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Q+A: Robert Lyons of ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ channels Carl Perkins at Harrah’s

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Steve Marcus

Cast members rehearse for “Million Dollar Quartet” in a warehouse near The Orleans on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013. From left are Benjamin D. Hale as Johnny Cash, Martin Kaye as Jerry Lee Lewis, Robert Britton Lyons as Carl Perkins, Felice Garcia as Dyanne and Tyler Hunter as Elvis Presley.

It was an extraordinary twist of fate that brought music legends Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins together for the first and only time. The date was Dec. 4, 1956, at Sun Records in Memphis owned by Sam Phillips, the “Father of Rock ’n’ Roll.”

The true story inspired a hit Broadway musical that went on to play worldwide, and because of sensational reaction during an engagement at The Smith Center last year, it premieres tonight as a residency show at Harrah’s.

There was a nationwide search for The Strip production as the performers had to be talented and powerhouse musicians and actors. When the curtain goes up tonight, several on the stage were found here in Las Vegas:

Benjamin Hale, who plays Johnny Cash, spent six years with “Phantom -- the Las Vegas Spectacular” as understudy for Raoul and as a swing performer in the Andrew Lloyd Webber masterpiece.

Felice Garcia has headlined here at “Fantasy” in the Luxor, “iCandy Burlesque” at Planet Hollywood and Tropicana’s long-running “Folies Bergere.” She’s a Runnin’ Rebel with a degree in vocal performance from UNLV.

Drummer Jim Belk, a professional musician for more than 30 years, was in “Mamma Mia” at Mandalay Bay and has played for Las Vegas shows starring Don Rickles, Wayne Newton, David Foster and Michael Grimm.

Bass player Mikey Hachey performed in more than 500 shows of Cirque du Soleil’s “Viva Elvis” at Aria.

Other artists include Martin Kaye as Jerry Lee Lewis, Tyler Hunter as Elvis Presley and Robert Lyons, who has starred as Carl Perkins in every production of “Million Dollar Quartet” since 2006. He was in the company for Broadway, London, Chicago, Off-Broadway, the National Tour and now Las Vegas.

Since he is the longest performer in the hit show, I decided that a conversation with him would be a revelation -- and I wasn’t disappointed.

Robin Leach: After seven years of playing Carl Perkins, one of the greatest musicians in life, have you taken on his countenance? Do you ever feel him when you are performing as him?

Robert Lyons: I do in a way. I am able to relate to his career trajectory in my own life. Things that have happened to me before I even started doing “Million Dollar Quartet,” obviously not on as large of a scale as he experienced, but I am a musician myself, I know what it is like to struggle behind the guitar and to play second fiddle to other musicians, other peers and counterparts. There are definite similarities that I feel to Carl and always have.

Rehearsal for 'Million Dollar Quartet'

Tyler Hunter, center, performs as Elvis Presley during a rehearsal for Launch slideshow »

Leach: Do you feel any channeling him or him channeling you while you are performing?

Lyons: I have not felt the bolt of lightening, if you will, of him moving through me, but I definitely feel a connection to him as a person. I have been able to do this performance in front of his son, Stan Perkins, before, and he gave me his seal of approval. To me that is answering the question.

Leach: Did Stan say he felt like he was listening to his dad?

Lyons: Stan said to me, specifically “I was watching you up there do your thing, and the old man would have smiled.”

Leach: This was a remarkable incident when by coincidence four of the world’s greatest musicians literally bumped into one another?

Lyons: In a way, yeah. It was somewhat orchestrated by Sam Phillips, but Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis wouldn’t have met -- that was kind of a stroke of luck. Jerry Lee Lewis, 19 at the time, was hired as a session piano player for the night. Carl, 19, at the time, was in the studio trying to record a follow-up hit to “Blue Suede Shoes.” I think Elvis called Sam or Johnny, and as they were both in town for the holidays, they hung out together. Sam was a savvy businessman and invited the press for the great souvenir photo -- way before social media! He was ahead of his time.

I don’t know how long the actual session lasted. The recording that exists is a rambling account like a two-CD set that you can get, so obviously hours passed where they were all there just carrying on. It wasn’t a specific session, it just sort of turned into them jamming, hanging out, laughing and telling stories together.

Leach: You have played the role of Carl since 2006. I am not being rude when I ask you how do you not get bored being another person for seven years?

Lyons: The person that I am playing is one of the coolest and most influential musicians of all time. From my background, being a rock ’n’ roller from Seattle, I love guitar. Without Carl Perkins’ influence, modern electric guitar would not be the same. I take pride in knowing that I am up there telling his story and in some small way keeping his legacy alive.

Leach: The hit songs include “Great Balls of Fire,” “16 Tons,” “Fever,” “Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Hound Dog” and “Blue Suede Shoes.” Is it impossible to get bored playing this music?

Lyons: It is all performed live onstage, and anybody who has ever been in a band, who has played any number of gigs together, will tell you that the music evolves over time. It is not just a static thing like pushing play on a CD player. It is a living, breathing thing. If you get bored, then you are doing it wrong.

'Million Dollar Quartet' at Reynolds Hall

Launch slideshow »

Leach:Why do you think, speaking as a musician, guitarist and rocker, this one moment in musical history stood out so big and at the same time could be turned into a musical production?

Lyons: At the time, in 1956, these guys were just on the cusp of their stardom. Elvis had just gone Hollywood with “Love Me Tender.” He was on the map, a true superstar. You’ve got four of what would eventually become giants of music, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley, and they are there at the dawn of their careers. They had seen success, they are inventing this idea of a rock star, without knowing that they are doing it.

I think for them all to come together in that one moment in time is just such a powerful combination of influence that was very innocent at the time, but with the benefit of history, we can look back and shake our heads. It wasn’t just that they were thrown together on some celebrity golf tournament, these guys were buddies, and they had a shared history, shared influences, and it really shows in our production of the play that there is a lot of camaraderie among the four guys.

Leach: Was it a magical moment that will live in music history forever?

Lyons: Absolutely. Honestly, when you see that photograph of these four guys together huddled around a piano, you say, “Wow, how did that happen?” Without Sam Phillips, though, there would be no Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee. He was the one who really discovered in all of them something special and unique and encouraged them to explore that.

Leach: The reaction from previews before tonight’s opening has been …

Lyons: … overwhelmingly positive. Without exaggerating, dancing in the aisles. Everybody leaps to their feet at the end of the show, they are laughing at the jokes, they are getting sucked into all of the drama and intrigue. It is a multi-faceted story, not just a rock ’n’ roll concert. You can really feel the audiences are tuned into the entire hour and a half.

Leach: Is the audience eavesdropping into rock ’n’ roll secrets?

Lyons: Absolutely. Eavesdropping is a great way to put it. I have often said that the audience is a fly on the wall: They get to look in on these guys and see them portrayed in a very honest light. We are not impersonators up there; we are people who really inhabit the spirit of the characters. And because of that, the audience really starts to believe that they are watching it all happen back in December 1956. That’s electrifying.

Celebrities expected to attend tonight’s red carpet premiere include former “Peepshow” headliner Holly Madison, comedienne Rita Rudner, 2011 Playmate of the Year Claire Sinclair, BMX pro and MTV personality Ricardo Laguna, “Top Chef Seattle” personality Carla Pellegrino and “Absinthe” star Angel Porrino. We’ll have the first-night report of the show and party right here on Wednesday.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow VDLX Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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