Rock Tails: “Million Dollar Quartet”

It is the most seminal impromptu jam session of all time. The date was December 4, 1956. During the session Bob Johnson, the entertainment editor of the local paper, was called to document the event. The following day, the account was published in the Memphis Press-Scimitar. It read: “Yesterday Carl Perkins was cutting some new records at Sam Phillips’ Sun Record studio on Union at Marshall. Elvis dropped in. So did Johnny Cash. Jerry Lee Lewis was already there. Elvis headed for the piano, and an old-fashioned barrelhouse session with barbershop harmony resulted”. The title of Johnson’s article read only three words: “Million Dollar Quartet.”

Photographer George Pierce, who was brought by Johnson, captured the now infamous “Quartet” photo. It is easily one of the most important snapshots in music history because it documents a completely original event. As award-winning music historian Colin Escott says, “[The Quartet] mixed and matched their disparate styles – and their innate musicality ensured that what emerged had the rarest of all musical qualities: originality.” Dismissed at the time, the session has reverberated through the years. The random get together only lasted one afternoon, but seldom has so much musical talent been convened in one setting.

According to Sun Records archives, “The jam session seems to have happened by pure chance. Perkins, who by this time had already met success with ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ had come into the studios that day, accompanied by his brothers Clayton and Jay and by drummer W.S. Holland. Their aim being to cut some new material, including a revamped version of an old blues song, ‘Matchbox.’ Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records, who wished to try to fatten this sparse rockabilly instrumentation, had brought in his latest acquisition, singer and piano man extraordinaire, Jerry Lee Lewis, still unknown outside Memphis, to play the piano on the Perkins session”. Lewis’ distinctive playing captivates on record, but he also turns in several nice gospel renditions with Elvis including “Just a Little Talk with Jesus”.

 

The Sun Records account resumes, “Sometime in the early afternoon, Elvis Presley, a former Sun artist himself, but now at RCA, dropped in to pay a casual visit accompanied by a girlfriend, Marilyn Evans. He was, at the time, the biggest name in show business, having hit the top of the singles charts five times, and topping the album charts twice in the preceding 12-month period. Less than four months earlier, he had appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, pulling an unheard-of 83% of the television audience, which was estimated at 55 million, the largest in history, up to that time. After chatting with Philips in the control room, Presley listened to the playback of the Perkins’ session, which he pronounced to be good. Then he went into the studio and some time later the jam session began.

“Phillips left the tapes running in order to ‘capture the moment’ as a souvenir and for posterity. At some point during the session, Sun artist Johnny Cash, who had also enjoyed a few hits on the country charts, popped in… As Jerry Lee pounded away on the piano, Elvis and his girlfriend at some point slipped out. The following day, an article, written by Memphis newspaperman Bob Johnson about the session, was published in the Memphis Press-Scimitar. The article contained the now well-known photograph of Elvis Presley seated at the piano surrounded by Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.”

Nobody disputes that the legendary assemblage took place, but there are varying accounts of the gathering. For one thing, Sam Phillips had always asserted that he was responsible for recording the event, but this has been contested. The legendary “Cowboy” Jack Clement claimed that it was his forethought that should be created with capturing the session. Clement stated, “Sam went next door the Taylor’s Restaurant. Carl Perkins was in the studio recording, but everything stopped when Elvis came in. Everybody just started swapping stories and picking out songs. And I remember thinking I would be remiss if I didn’t record this. So, I moved a few mics around and recorded what happened. Nobody paid any attention to the tapes for years and years”. After Shelby Singleton bought Sun Records in 1969, he eventually found the recordings and released an album of 17 tracks from the session.

Controversary surrounds Johnny Cash’s involvement. The “Man in Black” reigned as the biggest star in country music for nearly a half century after this event. At the time however, his star had only begun to shine. As such, folks can’t agree to the extent Cash participated in the session. It has been asserted that Cash arrived mid-session and didn’t actually sing. He firmly contested this. In his 1997 book “Cash: The Autobiography” Johnny offered his account: “I was there – I was the first to arrive and the last to leave, contrary to what has been written – but I was just there to watch Carl record, which he did until mid-afternoon, when Elvis came in with his girlfriend.”

Cash continues, “At that point the session stopped, and we all started laughing and cutting up together. Then Elvis sat down at the piano, and we started singing gospel songs we all knew, then some Bill Monroe songs. Elvis wanted to hear songs Bill had written besides “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, and I knew the whole repertoire. So, again contrary to what some people have written, my voice is on the tape. It’s not obvious, because I was farthest away from the mic and I was singing a lot higher than I usually did in order to stay in key with Elvis, but I guarantee you, I’m there.” The W. L. Thompson tune “Softly and Tenderly” is a prime example of this.

Jerry Lee Lewis would eventually be recognized as a monumental artist in his own right. He would proceed to transform universal entertainment by revolutionizing the piano as a rock and roll focal point. Elvis evidently had a good feeling about the upstart piano genius. Author Colin Escott reported that according to session participant accounts, Presley and Phillips went into the control room while Lewis was playing. Elvis then commented to Bob Johnson that “[Lewis] could go. I think he has a great future ahead of him…The way he plays piano gets inside me.”

Heard more frequently than Cash, Lewis covers some of the popular numbers of the day including selections by Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. When Elvis got up from the piano bench, Jerry Lee sat down and quickly mesmerized all lookers with his unmistakable flair and unparalleled style. “The Killer” was now on full display. A spirited medley by Jerry Lee contains several rocking tunes including an original he wrote called “End of the Road”. After running through the handful of songs, Elvis and girlfriend Marilyn Evans slipped out as Lewis was still hard at work on the piano. Cash wrote in his autobiography that “no one wanted to follow Jerry Lee, not even Elvis.”

“Super Groups” are common in the music industry, but the “Million Dollar Quartet” was nothing short of a music miracle. It was the random convergence of four legendary artists before they had become legends. But nobody knew the magnitude of this event when it happened. This was just four friends having fun playing music. It just so happened that the quartet would go on to define popular music.

 

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