Welcome to “Original Rock Legends!” To celebrate Geva’s final show this season, the hit musical Million Dollar Quartet directed by Hunter Foster, I’m taking you through a musical journey, uncovering the history behind the songs featured in Million Dollar Quartet.
Each week for the next five weeks, I’ll feature a different artist in the “quartet:” Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis. And, I’ll throw in some facts about other songs referenced in the show that weren’t written by these guys, just for fun. But you can expect a new post in this series, right here on Geva Journal, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the next few weeks. Be sure to tune back in for more original rock ‘n’ roll legends!
To kick us off, let’s talk about the Million Dollar Quartet album itself, and a possible misconception about the musical Million Dollar Quartet: Only two of the songs included in this jukebox musical are actually from the original Million Dollar Quartet recording session.
According to dramaturg Jean Gordon Ryon, “The musical uses the event [of the recording session] to tell the story of an era, and the songs in the musical reflect that era and the careers of the four musical stars. (Just as not all the songs in the show were sung on that day, not all the events in the show happened on that day — some happened years later.) The actual jam session in 1956 consisted largely of spirituals and hymns, songs all the men knew. Only “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” and “Down by the Riverside” were actually sung that afternoon; the other songs in the show are included to tell the larger story.”
In that spirit, I’d like to start the series by exploring those two numbers, “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” and “Down by the Riverside”:
“Down By The Riverside” –19th century
“I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the riverside/Down by the riverside, down by the riverside/I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the riverside/And I ain’t gonna study war no more.”
“Down By The Riverside” is one of the most popular spirituals in the country. It had been passed down orally since before the Civil War, when Southern slaves sang the tune as a work song. In 1918, the song was finally published in Plantation Melodies: A Collection of Modern, Popular and Old-Time Negro-Songs of the Southland. The imagery in the song provides several double-entendres, with the “river” representing one’s crossing over from Earth to Heaven, or from slavery in the South to freedom in the North (which required literally crossing the Ohio River at the Mason-Dixon line). Later, in the Vietnam War era, the lyric “Ain’t gonna study war no more” made the tune a perfect anti-war song.
Here’s the Million Dollar Quartet recording of “Down By The Riverside”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GRdakA0hLl8
“Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”-1956
“Beautiful daughter couldn’t make up her mind/’tween a doctor and a lawyer man/The mother told the daughter ‘go out and find/Yourself a brown eyed handsome man’/That’s what your daddy was: a brown eyed handsome man.”
Though the tune did not fare well on the charts, Chuck Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” clearly made an impression on the Million Dollar Quartet. Berry, who wrote the song himself, released the recording just three months before the Quartet met up at Sun Records. He said he was inspired to write the song after touring through towns in California with large black/Latinx populations, where he “didn’t see too many blue eyes.” “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” placed #383 on Rolling Stones’ list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” and was covered by such influential artists as Buddy Holly and Nina Simone, in addition to the Million Dollar Quartet.
Let’s listen to Chuck Berry’s original recording of “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zzDGx4hUvXg
“Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” is a particularly fun track to listen to on the Million Dollar Quartet album: There’s a lot of starting and stopping, and laughing as this room full of rock legends can’t seem to get all the lyrics and verses straight. It’s a perfect representation of the impromptu nature of the jam session, and the sense of fun in the room between these musicians. Take a listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fNbbp2DdOY
Thanks for tuning in to “Original Rock Legends!” We’ll be back on Wednesday with more stories behind the legendary musicians who defined rock ‘n’ roll. This program is sponsored by Geva Theatre Center, where the Million Dollar Quartet comes back to life, LIVE onstage, May 30th through June 25th. Until next time, rock on my friends!
Hey folks, did you know you could listen to the entire original Million Dollar Quartet album online, for free?? Check it out!