Eric Stang has recreated some of the best acts in entertainment. In his latest incarnation, he’s on fire as Jerry Lee Lewis, one of four legendary musicians, in Million Dollar Quartet.
Before the Chicago native debuted Off-Broadway in New World Stage’s Tony-Award nominated musical, he recorded songs for Kanye West, Twista and Malik Yusef.
When he wasn’t producing music with hip-hop’s biggest stars, Stang could be found taking the Chicago blues and rock scene by storm, wowing hardcore music fans.
In Million Dollar Quartet he holds his own against original cast members Eddie Clendening (Elvis), Lance Guest (Johnny Cash), and Robert Britton Lyons (Carl Perkins).
Stang recently spoke with TheImproper about his journey to the iconic artist’s shoes.
The Improper: What is your earliest memory of yourself as a performer?
Stang: It would probably be when I was five, I think I was playing a little bit of blues for some friends at school. I ended up signing autographs on paper plates for a bunch of kids!
IM: Were you always the entertainer in the family?
Stang: I used to perform all the time really. My dad always wanted me to play in public just to get me over stage fright, so if we were out somewhere and there was a piano he’d say, ‘Play us a song.’ I’d go play something just for fun.
IM: Were you a fan of Jerry Lee Lewis or any of the other members of the Million Dollar Quartet?
Stang: I was definitely a fan of Jerry Lee Lewis. I heard ‘Great Balls of Fire’ when I was really little, and I remember being blown away by it. It just had so much energy, and his confidence as a singer and his style really got to me. That’s probably a reason I wanted to take up piano in the first place, just hearing ‘Great Balls of Fire,’ and thinking how cool it was.
IM: It’s interesting that Jerry Lee Lewis inspired you as a youngster, and now, at the beginning of your career in musical theater, you get to play him.
Stang: I never would have thought that’s something I would be able to do. Growing up, I actually listened to a lot of older music, stuff from the ’60s and ’70s. I liked Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, The Beatles,Rolling Stones, a lot of classic rock. I played a lot of blues music when I was younger. It actually took me a couple of years to come along to more current music; now I listen to everything that’s out there, hip-hop, modern rock, etc.
IM: It seems that many young people today are unappreciative of jazz. Did you ever feel like an outsider because you enjoyed it so much?
Stang: At the age of 10 I started learning jazz and blues. It’s just so fundamental to learning how to play piano. It’s so infused into other music. I may get to record hip-hop music, but that’s still based on when I learned to play jazz, and the musical theory of jazz. I think any musician, especially a piano player who loves to do different types of music, has got to be able to play jazz early on, or at least have a respect for it. I’m glad that I did.
IM: In which ways do you think that you are personally similar to Jerry Lee Lewis?
Stang: When I was 20 I was similar to Jerry Lee Lewis in the show in the way he’s kind of aggressive. I think it was more like I really wanted to prove myself when I was younger, like a lot of musicians do. So when I got a chance to play in front of people I really wanted to show off, and I probably was cocky about my abilities.
I was better than most kids at a young age, so I think I was similar to Jerry Lee Lewis in where I really wanted to show everyone that I was the best. I was also the young guy playing with a lot of older people in the bands I would play with. I would go play in the blues scene in Chicago with a bunch of really cool, older, black musicians, and I was this white, young kid. I had to act that way to get everyone’s attention so they could see what I was doing, and that I was meant to be playing with people that had been doing it for a lot longer than I had.
IM: How does the Chicago blues and jazz scene compare to the New York musical theater scene?
Stang: Luckily, the guys in Million Dollar Quartet all come from varied backgrounds, but they’ve all put their time in and played with all kinds of groups and rock bands, so doing the show in New York is like joining a band. It happens to be a musical, but it’s also a real rock band of guys that have a serious background in music. I have a really big respect for the Chicago music scene.
It definitely has more of a blues scene, and that’s something that I haven’t seen as strongly in New York. I know that Million Dollar Quartet is a standout show among all the musicals because the actors are the musicians. We are all really performing, it’s not just singing songs with a band in the pit accompanying us.
IM: What is the greatest challenge of playing a real person, as opposed to playing a fictional character?
Stang: Just living up to everything that person encompasses. Every person in The Million Dollar Quartet is known for having these very specific skills. For Jerry Lee Lewis, it’s just about always having that energy, and in some ways, that cockiness and that strut. In some ways he’s innocent, he just thinks he deserves to be given all the credit in the world for being the greatest thing ever. He doesn’t realize he’s being over the top; he’s just trying to be fun and get a lot of attention. I think bringing that honesty to the character is definitely a challenge because it requires a lot of energy, and you really have to jump into the character. You can’t fake it.
IM: How did you prepare for the role of Jerry Lee Lewis?
Stang: I’ve watched a lot of clips of him performing and doing interviews. I’ve seen the way he’s been portrayed in different movies, and it’s interesting to see how different people portray him. I had to find a happy medium between who I am and who he is, because I don’t think we’re really trying to be impersonators in this show.
We’re trying to capture the music and the energy, but we’re allowed to kind of be ourselves. I can’t make it real if I’m trying to speak exactly like him and put on his voice. But if I capture the way he stands, which is very upright and proud with an unapologetic air, I think that kind of guides me.
IM: Tell us about your band, Polarcode, that your drummer named by combining the titles of two Tom Hanks films!
Stang: We have an interesting take on rock. I’d say the bands we’ve been influenced by the most have been bands like Muse, Coldplay, Radiohead and Incubus. We’ve taken the modern rock band idea, but we don’t have a guitar player. I play three keyboards at the same time. I actually had this custom rig built, it’s a Fender Rose that I distort through a guitar amp. It kind of sounds like guitar. We play rock, we write all kinds of ballads, intense rock sounds.
For me it’s funny, it’s like the parallel between Jerry Lee Lewis and my band is the same idea. He was a revolutionary of his time. He took the piano and made it this rock instrument where he just jammed out on it and played his butt off. He played it hard and as fast as he could, and that made the piano really cool. With this band I’m trying to do the same thing. With most rock bands, the first thing they want to play is rock, and they pick up some guitars and do that.
I said, ‘No, I’m going to pick up keyboards and we’re going to create really cool sounds and textures, and I’m going to use keyboards as the rock instrument.’ I’m trying to be the modern day Jerry Lee Lewis in terms of trying to revolutionize what people’s expectations of a rock band are. You can go see a rock show and there’s a piano player playing, and it sounds just as full as rock and any band that has a guitar.
IM: How did you get involved with Kanye West?
Stang: He produced an album with an artist named Malik Yusef, one of the guys he grew up with. He has co-written all kinds of songs with him and performed with him. They did a compilation album together with a lot of guests. Adam Levine from Maroon 5 did a song on it, John Legend, Common, Michelle Williams… The name of it is Good Morning, Good Night and I performed seven songs on it.
I was in the right place at the right time. The band I was working with at the time was called Electronic Tribe Effect, and we ended up playing some really big shows in Milwaukee at SummerFest. We opened for Lupe Fiasco the first time we played there for about 8,000 people, and the next year we opened for Flava Flav and Public Enemy. So I went down that hip-hop road, and wrote some original songs. It was a lot of fun, I still enjoy playing that style but I’ve put that down for a bit.
IM: What’s the craziest thing someone in the audience has done during a lively performance of Million Dollar Quartet?
Stang: At a show really recently I was playing, and whenever I would do a solo or something really cool, this one guy in the audience would yell out, like the Howard Dean scream. That’s the best response I’ve ever gotten from one person. People are screaming for you, people are clapping for you, but this guy giving me this really enthusiastic, ‘Yahh!’ That’s probably a memory I’ll have for a while.
I love when people come to our show really excited to have fun because then they have a great time, and we have a great time. Certain people come out and they’re a little more reticent, while others come and they want to scream. I welcome that! You’re getting a chance to watch these musicians all together, performing, and talking about their lives as they were at the time. These memories come rushing back to everyone who comes to see the show.
Visit https://www.milliondollarquartetlive.com/ for more information.