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December 05, 2022

December 4, 1956: The Million Dollar Quartet

The Million Dollar Quartet. Left to right: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis and Johnny Cash.
Sun Studio, Memphis, Tennessee; December 4, 1956 (© George Pierce)

The Million Dollar Quartet is the name given to recordings made on Tuesday, December 4, 1956, at Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee. They captured an impromptu jam session between Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.


Carl Perkins, who already knew success with "Blue Suede Shoes", had entered the studios that day, accompanied by his brothers Clayton and Jay and drummer W.S. Holland, aiming to record some new material. At a suggestion from his father, Perkins began work on a revamped version of an old blues song, called "Matchbox".

Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records, who wanted to try to fatten up this meager rockabilly instrumentation, brought his latest acquisition, Jerry Lee Lewis, still unknown outside of Memphis, to play piano (at the time, a Wurlitzer Spinet) at the Perkins session. Lewis' first Sun single would be released a few days later.

Sometime in the early afternoon, Elvis Presley, 21, former Sun artist, now RCA Victor star, arrived for a casual visit accompanied by a girlfriend, Marilyn Evans. After talking to Phillips in the control room, Elvis listened to Perkins' session, which he declared was good.

So he went into the studio and some time later the jam session started. At some point during the session, Sun artist Johnny Cash, who had recently enjoyed a few hit records in the country, also arrived.

Jack Clement was the sound engineer at the time and remembers saying to himself, "I think I'd be remiss not to record this"; and so he did. After going through a series of songs, Elvis and his girlfriend left when Jerry Lee took over the piano. Johnny Cash wrote in "Cash" that "no one wanted to follow Jerry Lee, not even Elvis".

Sam Phillips (at Elvis' left) welcomes his former star in front of the press cameras, accompanied by Bob Johnson (L)
and Leo Soroca (R). Sun Studio, Memphis, Tennessee; December 4, 1956 (© George Pierce)

Whatever Elvis' feelings about "following" Lewis, Presley was clearly the "star" of the improvised jam, which consisted largely of snippets of Gospel songs that the four artists had grown up singing. The recordings show that Elvis, the most nationally and internationally famous of the four at the time, was the focal point of a chance meeting of four artists who would increasingly contribute to the seismic shift in popular music in the late 1950s.

During the session, Phillips called Bob Johnson, the entertainment editor for the local Memphis Press-Scimitar newspaper, who came to the studio with UPI representative Leo Soroca and a photographer. Johnson wrote an article about the session, which appeared the next day in Press-Scimitar under the title "Million Dollar Quartet". The article contained the now famous photograph of Presley sitting at the piano surrounded by Lewis, Perkins and Cash.

Naturally, it all came to a halt as the musicians gathered around Elvis and his girlfriend, a dancer from Las Vegas, and Sam, who was used to Presley's unannounced visits, welcomed him warmly, but in a way that wouldn't take away from the crowd attention of his current musicians. He no longer had any worries about Elvis finding his voice in RCA.

When "Don't Be Cruel" had come out that summer, he'd finally let it go. Sam didn't care about "Hound Dog", the A-side - for him, the song couldn't even come close to Big Mama Thornton's original - but when he first heard "Don't Be Cruel", driving back to Memphis from Daytona Beach, with Becky and the kids, he practically ran off the road. "When I heard that vamp, I said, 'Glory Hallelujah, now there is a groove'," he would later say.

The Million Dollar Quartet and Elvis' girlfriend, Las Vegas dancer Marilyn Evans;
Sun Studio, Memphis, Tennessee; December 4, 1956 (© George Pierce)

It was "a sad story with a happy beat", but more than that, for the first time, it felt like Elvis was truly in charge. "It was the total spontaneity. And the rhythm was moving along just right - it [was] pushing him, [but] he still had command," Phillips said. But that was what set Elvis apart from so many other boys, Sam felt: Presley could learn from his mistakes, when others were destined to repeat them.

As the jam session began, Bob Johnson of Press-Scimitar and the Sun stars were around Elvis at the piano. Jerry Lee was unexpectedly collaborative, Carl was tight-lipped in concentration, Johnny was wearing a striped school-style jacket, and Elvis looked expectantly over his shoulder at his fellow musicians as his guest Marilyn Evans sits atop the piano.

They sang just about every type of song they knew - Blues, Bluegrass, Spirituals, Pop and R&B - with Elvis taking the lead, joined first by Carl and his brothers, with Smokey Joe Baugh, the scratched-out voice of "Split Personality", on the piano. Elvis performed a number of songs, but perhaps the most fascinating was his own "Don't Be Cruel", which he said he heard performed by "this guy in Las Vegas [with] Billy Ward and His Dominoes that was doing a take-off on me."

Elvis, Johnny Cash and Marilyn Evans during the Million Dollar Quartet jam.
Sun Studio, Memphis, Tennessee; December 4, 1956 (© George Pierce)

Not long after that Elvis starts Chuck Berry's "Brown Eyed Handsome Man", and it sparks an almost adulating discussion about Berry's singing and songwriting skills. "I just come back from a five-week tour with him," says Carl as everyone enjoys the lyrics, laughing out loud at all the clever twists and turns the song makes. Everyone expresses their unqualified admiration, including Sam Phillips.

They all contribute to the music and mood - Carl sings a beautiful rendition of Wynn Stewart's recently released country classic "Keeper of the Keys", and there's harmony in bits. But at the center of the session, inevitably, are the Spirituals that they've all grown up listening to, with Jerry Lee hurling himself into the high harmonies with unbridled and occasionally unfocused abandon, and even if Sam didn't like to sing, it's nice to imagine that you can hear that deep voice of which he was so unassumingly proud.

"Me and Elvis knew the words to every song, because we were raised up in the same church", said Jerry Lee. It is a moment of perfect innocence. It is also, in many ways, a moment of pure vindication, proof to Sam that this music - the music of poor blacks and whites that had been neglected for so long - would not be forgotten.

In the end, Jerry Lee Lewis, who hasn't been so patiently waiting his turn, finally gets his chance in the spotlight as he rips the piano through song after song for everyone's indulgent appreciation. Conversations are continued, everyone makes plans to meet again soon. "That's why I hate to start these jam sessions," says Elvis. "I'm always the last one to leave."

You can hear doors slamming, and conversations dragging on outside the studio. And then it was over.

Elvis, Sam Phillips & Smokey Joe Baugh during the The Million Dollar Quartet jam.
Sun Studio, Memphis, Tennessee; December 4, 1956. (© George Pierce)

Sam used the story that appeared in the paper the next day as an advertisement in the form of a letter to DJs, with the photo in the center and a handwritten message attached at the bottom: "Our only regret! That each and everyone of you wonderful D.J.s who are responsible for these boys being among the best known and liked in show business could not be here too!"

Article published by Bob Johnson on Memphis Press-Scimitar; December 5, 1956


Original article: compiled from Elvis AustraliaSun Record Company & Wikipedia
Photos: George Pierce e Google
Research and structuring: Elvis Presley Index |
>>the re-availability of this translation is only allowed if the credits are kept and without edits.<<

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