The four leads of Million Dollar Quartet are portraying legends of music history on stage in the West End. So it felt only right to delve into their own musical history. Caroline Bishop asked some pertinent questions.
On 4 December 1956 four legendary musicians got together for a jam session at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. They were Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. The Million Dollar Quartet, as that gathering became known, is no easy act to follow, but that didn’t stop Michael Malarkey, Ben Goddard, Oliver Seymour Marsh and Derek Hagen from taking up the mantel. The talented – if not yet legendary – foursome is currently recreating the events of 1956 on stage at the Noël Coward theatre. But exactly how rock ‘n’ roll are they?
What was the first piece of music you ever bought?
Ben Goddard (Jerry Lee Lewis): Peer Gynt by Grieg.
Derek Hagen (Johnny Cash): Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet (it was the 80s!).
Michael Malarkey (Elvis Presley): Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s E. 1999 Eternal cassette tape. That’s a hip-hop group from Cleveland, Ohio. I grew up in Ohio. Represent.
Oliver Seymour-Marsh (Carl Perkins): An album called In Step by Stevie Ray Vaughan, although there are a few other more embarrassing CDs towards the beginning of my collection!
What musicians (past or present) inspire you and why?
Goddard: [Led Zeppelin’s] Jimmy Page, a god-given genius and my hero. [Russian violin virtuoso] Maxim Vengerov, plays every note as if he’ll never hear it again.
Hagen: Rock ‘n’ roll to rappers; I love ‘em all (except boy bands)
Malarkey: I have been inspired by Tom Waits ever since I first came across him in high school. What a legend. I love the way he paints pictures with his songs. His albums Rain Dogs and The Heart Of Saturday Night were big influences on me when I first started writing music.
Seymour-Marsh: Jimmy Page, for creativity and originality. Early blues players like BB King, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson. Any singer/songwriter that really believes in what they are playing.
What made you first pick up a musical instrument and what age were you?
Goddard: I was three. It was a recorder. I just wanted to have a go. The piano, age four; flute, seven; guitar, 11. I finished all my grades by 12. I was a very boring child!
Hagen: I was eight and picked up the alto sax because I wanted to play the Pink Panther theme tune.
Malarkey: My parents sent me to piano lessons for about six years when I was a kid, but I hated it. I used to lock myself in the bathroom or pretend to be sick so I wouldn’t have to go to my lessons. I first picked up a guitar when I was about 18. I taught myself on an electric playing bar chords with a distortion pedal. I was into punk rock and metal at the time. I eventually switched over to an acoustic a couple years later, which is when I started writing my own songs.
Seymour-Marsh: I was 14 and had to learn to play Whole Lotta Love (Led Zeppelin). My first guitar was a second hand Epiphone Les Paul that I still love.
What is the hardest thing about playing a music legend?
Goddard: Being compared to him! No-one could ever come close to Jerry Lee. Utter legend.
Hagen: People’s expectations. Everyone has their own personal relationship with an icon they respect. It’s a lot to live up to!
Malarkey: Probably the expectation of Elvis fans. However, throughout the audition process and rehearsals we were encouraged to ignore the characters as ‘icons’ and focus on the young ambitious artists they were in 1956. In Elvis’s case this was before he went to the army, before the Vegas days and the white suits and before he had fine-tuned his ‘act.’ He was still shy, humble and nervous. He knew he was on to something big but felt like it could end any minute. The challenge for me has been encapsulating the young Elvis (he was only 21) without allowing the icon that he became to bleed through too much.
Seymour-Marsh: The fact that every individual has their own opinions and memories of a particular person or icon and your interpretation is based on personal choices, ie, how you perceive different aspects of their character.
Are you anything like your character?
Goddard: Yes. The less said the better! I was a tearaway kid…
Hagen: Goodness no! My parents may read this!
Malarkey: Quite a bit actually. We were both shy and sensitive country boys with a passion for music and a really close-knit family. There are also a lot of subtle psychological similarities, but they’re kind of difficult to put into words. We have a similar spirit.
Seymour-Marsh: I think that Carl’s greatest failure / success was that he never managed to understand the commercial market (unlike Presley) and was always a bit of an outsider. I suppose, in that sense, I share a little of his character.
What is your favourite tune in the show and why?
Goddard: Whole Lotta Shakin’. Means it’s party time.
Hagen: Folsom Prison Blues. It’s just brilliant and great fun to play.
Malarkey: I love doing Hound Dog because I get to lose the guitar and just focus on singing and working the crowd. I also love the arrangement of Sixteen Tons/My Babe sung by Cash and Perkins.
Seymour-Marsh: My Babe. There is an incredible stripped down version of this song by a band called Otha Turner And His Drum And Fife Band. The song is pure roots blues and so much fun to play.
If you could go back and be present at one moment in rock ‘n’ roll history, what would it be?
Goddard: In the audience of the Ed Sullivan Show when Elvis sang Blue Suede Shoes. Amazing. And the first time Led Zeppelin rehearsed Black Dog!
Hagen: 4 Dec 1956 – without question.
Malarkey: 4 December 1956 baby! So I could witness this quartet in action.
Seymour-Marsh: Ahhh… so many. Probably being a fly on the wall the first time John, Paul, Ringo and George jammed Honey Don’t together.
Who would win a fist fight between Perkins/Presley/Lewis/Cash?
Goddard: Cash on points. Though Lewis would never take a count!
Hagen: Cash; no debate.
Malarkey: Perkins would probably whip out a knife.
Seymour-Marsh: Perkins… any day!