Million Dollar Quartet: Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins And Jerry Lee In '56
L-R Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley (sitting), Johnny Cash - The Million Dollar Quartet - group shot at Sun Studios (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)
On December 4, 1956, "The Million Dollar Quartet" existed briefly when chance brought Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins together at Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee. The label mates took part in an impromptu jam session that yielded between 17 and 40 songs, depending on how you define "song," as many of the surviving tracks are snippets. They weren't there to cut an album, they didn't call themselves the Million Dollar Quartet, and they played more old country and gospel than rock 'n roll. It was just a jam session, arguably the most famous in history.
Following the session, the stars went their separate ways, with Elvis and Johnny Cash becoming some of the biggest stars of the 20th century. Carl Perkins became legendary as the godfather of rockabilly, and Jerry Lee Lewis, the only surviving member as of 2020, is the most influential piano player in rock history.
The recordings weren't released until 1981, and much of how the session came together remains a mystery.
Fate brought these stars together
Carl Perkins went into the studio on December 4, 1956, intending to record a song he'd written called "Matchbox" (which had some lyrics in common with Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Match Box Blues") with his brothers Clayton and Jay, and by drummer W.S. Holland. To fill out the thin rockabilly sound he asked new Sun Records artist Jerry Lee Lewis to sit in on the Wurlitzer Spinet piano. At the time, Lewis hadn't even released a single yet but he'd already made an impact on the crew.
As chance would have it, 21-year-old Elvis Presley happened to be visiting the studio after moving over the RCA Victor, and depending on whom you ask Johnny Cash was either already in the studio so he could listen to Perkins' session, or he showed up super late. Cash said that he was early, everyone else said he waltzed in late to see what was going on.
Whoever showed up first doesn't really matter. It's what the four singers did together that lasts, not their day to day schedule.
Everyone rallied around Elvis
Elvis was easily the most famous person in the room even in 1956. His second album had just dropped and he was the star of Love Me Tender, so either the rest of the singers decided to follow his lead or he took on the role of leader with this proto version of the Traveling Wilburys.
This spur of the moment recording shows the the singers' love of and familiarity with gospel music. Lewis and Elvis were both raised in the church, each of the hailing from variations of the Pentecostal religion. At the time, Elvis Presley was recording pop-leaning rockabilly songs, but this recording shows that he was already thinking about the gospel tunes that he would return to later in his career.
Cash and Perkins take a back seat through much of the recording, with Cash attempting to accommodate Presley's voice by singing way above his range while Perkins hung back to strum his guitar and give the recordings the appropriate rockabilly flair.
The record was a melting pot of Memphis artistry
The Million Dollar Quartet recordings feature a ton of different Memphis musicians, but the bulk of the session features Perkins on guitar along with Presley on piano for a brief period of time before he turns the keys over the Lewis. While it's clear that there's a healthy amount of competition between the artists, Sun Records producer and owner Sam Philips said after the fact that he thinks everyone on the recording was just happy to be working with one another. It made them feel like they weren't alone in the recording industry. He said:
I think this chance meeting meant an awful lot to all those people, not because one was bigger than another, it was kind of like coming from the same womb.
Jerry Lee Lewis wanted to prove that he belonged in the room
In hindsight, it makes sense that the four members of the Million Dollar Quartet were recording with one another, but in 1956 Jerry Lee Lewis was the odd man out. He'd yet to release any recordings, but his brash sensibilities and cocksure attitude made it clear that he thought he was every bit the star of the rest of the singers. While speaking with the New York Times in 2010, Lewis says that Elvis was especially excited to meet him because of his cover of "You Win Again" by Hank Williams. He said:
He just kept begging me, ‘Do that again.' I said, ‘How ’bout you do it?’ He just twisted his leg around. I said, ‘Is that it?’
Aside from Presley, Lewis is the most present on the recordings. Even when he's not singing, Lewis' signature piano sound is all over the songs and it proves how important he is to the landscape of rock n roll.
Sam Phillips is the reason we know about the session
Without Samp Phillips, the founder of Sun Records and Sun Studios, no one would know that Cash, Lewis, Perkins, and Presley got together in the studio to ham it up and sing gospel songs. Lewis says that while the four men were messing around in the studio it was Phillips' idea to press record. Aside from having the foresight to realize that he had four huge stars in his midst and that we'd still be talking about them today, he also realized that a photographer needed to be on hand.
In the middle of the session Phillips called the Memphis Press-Scimitar and had Bob Johnson, the newspaper's entertainment editor, pop over to the studios along with UPI representative Leo Sora and photographer George Pierce. Johnson wrote up a story about the session and dubbed the group the "Million Dollar Quartet." The article featured the photo that we all know of the session that shows Presley seated at the piano surrounded by Lewis, Perkins and Cash.
The story became the basis for a Broadway musical
Somehow, the recordings of these four superstars were buried for decades. The sessions didn't become public until 1981 when a collection of the recordings were released as "The Million Dollar Quartet," in 1987, more recordings were released in 1987, and in 2006 a 50th Anniversary edition featuring an additional 12 minutes of music taken from Presley’s personal copies of the recording session was dropped.
One year later, a musical based on the recording sessions was produced called Million Dollar Quartet before making its way to Broadway in 2010. The musical was nominated for a Tony Award, and won high praise from Jerry Lee Lewis, who felt that Levi Kreis (who played him in the adaptation) did a "splendid job."
Tags: Carl Perkins | Elvis Presley | Jerry Lee Lewis | Johnny Cash | Memphis Tennessee | Sam Phillips | Sun Records
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