An amalgam of talent, luck and hard work took Carl Perkins all the way from Tiptonville, Tennessee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That same combination has brought Robert Britton Lyons from Seattle, Washington to Broadway, where Lyons is portraying Perkins in Million Dollar Quartet, a musical requiring him to sing, act and play guitar. Lyons is one of the only two cast members to have been with the show since it was workshopped in a small Seattle suburb back in 2006, so he's had a long time to get used to his blue suede shoes.
Carl Perkins is known as "The Father of Rockabilly." How would you describe rockabilly?
If you break it down, you get rock 'n' roll and hillbilly. It's sort of music from the back woods and back porches of juke joints, combined with a rock 'n' roll beat.
Would you describe yourself as an ol' poor boy, a long long way from home?
You know, I definitely see some similarities [between Perkins and I].
I am from Seattle, which is about as far away from New York as you can get. I definitely had a path in Seattle, which I was happy to get away from to come out here. But I definitely feel untethered from my home.
This show features some very iconic characters. Describe Jerry Lee Lewis in a few words.
Brash, energetic and virtuosic.
How about Sam Phillips?
Sam was a visionary. He had the ear for bringing the music that was buried inside artists out.
Soulful. He was a real quiet, shy guy, which not a lot of people know. You get to know that in the show. A lot of people only know the Las Vegas Elvis and that is definitely not what Eddie [Clendening] is bringing to the role.
Man in black. I mean, you've got a guy who really had his soul and passion in gospel music, and he was working with Sam Phillips, who was pulling really personal songs out of him. He was conflicted about that. He wanted to play gospel, but he had songs like "Folsom Prison Blues" making him famous and giving him all of this credibility.
And your character?
Carl was the unsung hero. The perpetual underdog. Not only was he a songwriter, he also played electric guitar and sang his own songs. He was the father of rockabilly music, but never quite achieved the fame of his peers. In certain circles, however, he remains one of the biggest influences on music to this day.
Perkins wrote "Blue Suede Shoes" and you wear the appropriate footwear onstage. Do you own blue suede shoes?
I don't. And I don't know if that is just because I want to keep the character separated from my daily life or because I am more a jeans and t-shirt guy.
In the show, Perkins talks about Phillips giving up on him. Is there anyone who has ever given up on you?
I would say "no" to that. I have never really rubbed anyone the wrong way enough for them to say: "Forget about it." Maybe a math teacher in high school that was upset that I never learned about trigonometry, but that doesn't bother me one bit.
Who or what cramps your style?
Well, you got an hour? I don't want to sound cruel or anything, but to me it is maybe people who tend to offer too much unsolicited information; people who are dying to be the center of attention and, within two minutes, tell me their entire resume. It really gets under my skin.
In the show, your hair is fairly long and slicked back, but a famous picture from that time, Carl Perkins does not have that hair. Is it that you've always had long hair and wanted to keep it?
It is my hair and nobody told me I couldn't keep it. Carl wasn't necessarily known for having the best head of hair. He wore a rug in his later years. The hair people were very merciful to me--they said that they didn't need to thin out my hair out or curl it. I have always had long hair, so they let me go with it. I am definitely 100% committed to the show, but that is only once a day--that leaves twenty-two and a half hours. If I didn't have my hair, I would wear a cap or something for all that time.