When it comes to the coincidental life of W.S. Holland, he calls it all a fluke.
Why was he there the day of the historic Million Dollar Quartet jam session in 1956 with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins at Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn.?
It was a fluke.
Why did he ever leave the air-conditioning business and pick up the drums that day in 1955 to record “Blue Suede Shoes” with Carl Perkins?
Well, that was a fluke, too.
When Holland, nicknamed Fluke for all the reasons above, looks back on all the late-night jam sessions, tours and records, he says he was lucky to be there, thanks to his good friend Perkins.
Holland will help share that music during the Broadway at the Embassy series production “Million Dollar Quartet Live” at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Embassy Theatre.
Carl Perkins, member of the Perkins Brothers Band and a rockabilly music legend, and Holland grew up in the same hometown outside of Jackson, Tenn. Holland frequented the shows, tapping his foot along to the beat.
Then, one day, Perkins approached Holland and said he was going record a record called “Movie Magg” the following week, and he asked Holland if he'd hop on the drums.
“I found a guy the next day that had some drums for sale, and I got them and set them up at my mom's,” Holland recalled. “Before then, I hadn't even thought about looking at a set of drums.”
Holland was a little lost at first.
“Then I had to set the drums up,” he said. “When I set them up, I sat set them up backwards, and I had the high hat over the right side. Other drummers have the high hat over on the left, and they are blocking their left hand with their right hand. Because of that setup, I created that style of play,” he said.
Once he was over the newbie-hump, Holland became a regular in the Sun Records studio, and famous producer Sam Phillips used Fluke's talents for many of his musicians.
After “Movie Magg” with Perkins came the 1955 Sun Records recording of “Blue Suede Shoes” by Perkins, the song's writer and original performer. Then Holland finally found his official spot in the Johnny Cash band and was the only drummer to record with Cash.
During the mid-'50s, musicians would freely come and go at Sun Records. That's how the regular jam session Tuesday, Dec. 4, 1956, came about.
Perkins and Holland were there to record a revamped version of an old blues song, “Matchbox.” Lewis, not widely known outside of Memphis at the time, had been recently hired by Phillips to record with his musicians. Presley and Cash happened to be in town that day and decided to stop over. That's when it happened, and the music began flowing.
“The recorder didn't even think a lot about what was going on, he just turned it on and let it run then ran next door to the cafe to get a sandwich,” Holland said. “Sam Phillips did think to call a photographer, and that made those famous pictures you see.
“We played quite a few songs, then they left and we finished the session. It wasn't no big deal,” Holland said. “People today ask me what it was like to be in the studio with all those big stars, and I say, 'Hey, there we're no big stars there that night.'”
During the session Phillips spotted an opportunity for publicity and called a local newspaper, the Memphis Press-Scimitar. The newspaper's entertainment editor came over to the studios, and the following day an article was published under the title “Million Dollar Quartet.”
Obviously, back then the music business was different. To get a popular record, Holland said all you'd need to do is make a record, which was a simple song recording, put it on the famous Dewey Phillips radio show and then by Saturday you could play to hundreds at a National Guard armory anywhere within a 100-mile radius of Memphis.
Holland toured with all the big Sun Records names, including Roy Orbison, Billy Lee Riley, Sonny Burgess, Warren Smith and more.
Today, Holland brings back memories working with the off-Broadway production of “Million Dollar Quartet Live.”
The musical production, inspired by the real-life events, hopes to take you inside the studio that day as actors perform some of the top hits from the jam session including “Hound Dog,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “See you Later, Alligator” and more.
“What's strange about it is, while it was happening, I didn't think one thing about it, and, now that it's history, it seems like people are really interested,” Holland said. “I am still having a great time traveling and playing.”