The Million Dollar Quartet

February 2, 2014 • 11:23 am

In one of my rare forays into the real world, I went to a musical last night: “The Million Dollar Quartet,” which has been playing in Chicago for several years. You may know the backstory, which is detailed in Wikipedia:

“Million Dollar Quartet” is a recording of an impromptu jam session involving Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash made on Tuesday December 4, 1956 in the Sun Record Studios in Memphis, Tennessee. An article about the session was published in the Memphis Press-Scimitar under the title “Million Dollar Quartet”. The recording was first released in Europe in 1981 as The Million Dollar Quartet with seventeen tracks. A few years later more tracks were discovered and released as The Complete Million Dollar Session. In 1990 the recordings were released in the US titled, Elvis Presley – The Million Dollar Quartet.

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,[1] 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, Jerry Lee Lewis, still unknown outside Memphis, to play piano on the Perkins session. Sometime in the early afternoon, the still 21 year old Elvis Presley, a former Sun artist but now at RCA, dropped in to pay a casual visit accompanied by a girlfriend, Marilyn Evans.[2]

After chatting with Philips in the control room, Presley listened to the playback of Perkins’ session, which he pronounced to be good. Then he went out into the studio and some time later the jam session began. At some point during the session, Sun artist Johnny Cash, who had recently enjoyed a few hits on the country charts, popped in. (Cash wrote in his autobiography Cash that he had been first to arrive at the Sun Studio that day, wanting to listen in on the Perkins recording session.) Jack Clement was engineering that day and remembers saying to himself “I think I’d be remiss not to record this” and so he did. After running through a number of songs, Elvis and girlfriend Evans slipped out as Jerry Lee pounded away on the piano. Cash claims in Cash that “no one wanted to follow Jerry Lee, not even Elvis.”

During the session Phillips called a local newspaper, the Memphis Press-Scimitar, and Bob Johnson, the newspaper’s entertainment editor, came over to the studios accompanied by a UPI representative named Leo Soroca and a photographer. The following day, an article, written by Johnson about the session, was published in the Memphis Press-Scimitar under the title “Million Dollar Quartet”. The article contained the now-famous photograph of Presley seated at the piano surrounded by Lewis, Perkins and Cash (the uncropped version of the photo also includes Evans, shown seated atop the piano).

The players, photographed on that day: (L to R), Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash


I knew about this amazing jam sesssion, but had no idea that it had been recorded. And, indeed, the entire recording is available at YouTube (on the bottom). The play involves four musicians playing the principals (the guys playing Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins were particularly good), and interacting with each other and Sam Phillips, giving a bit of history of Sun Records. The music was great (unlike the real jam session, the Johnny Cash actor actually sings some songs in the musical).  There are 47 tracks on the album from the real jam session (the Wikipedia article lists them all), with a surprisingly large amount of gospel music. Gospel was, of course, a huge influence on Elvis and the early rockers, and Elvis recorded gospel songs throughout his career.

A lot of songs in the musical weren’t actually played on that day in 1956, and here’s one of them: my favorite in the show. There simply was nobody who could match the Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis (1935 and still with us). Here he is doing one of my favorite rockabilly songs, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On“; this was recorded in 1957, when Lewis was a stripling of 22! (It’s also one of only four rock songs I know of that mention the word “chicken”.) Who knows how such talent came out of Ferriday, Louisiana, but blame the laws of physics. Lewis was a bit of a shooting star, never able to hold onto to the quality of songs like this one, or “Great Balls of Fire,” but he’s the only one left of the original four.

The song wasn’t written by Lewis, but he gave it the driving impetus that made it a #1 hit. It’s a deliberate tour de force, performed here on Steve Allen’s show:

Another favorite. You might be unaware that “Blue Suede Shoes” was not only not written by Elvis, but was a hit before his version: the writer and original singer was Carl Perkins (1932-1998), whose recording made it to #1 on the country charts. Here he is performing it in 1956 on the Perry Como show:

Finally, here’s the original recording of the “million dollar quartet”, at a bit over one hour:

h/t: GM

14 thoughts on “The Million Dollar Quartet

  1. Saw a performance of this same play in my hometown of Akron, Ohio recently. Absolutely loved the play. A remarkable jam session.

  2. Anyone else finding themselves skipping over the songs that Perkins takes lead on? I have been an atheist all my life, but would much rather listen to gospel music praising Jaysus! than a single minute of most twangy country songs (Hank Williams [senior] excepted).

  3. Bought this CD when I did a tour of Sun Records in Memphis some years ago. The tour was very interesting, in large part due to the dynamic girl who escorted us and explained the history of the recording studio. Recommended if you get to Memphis some time.

  4. Ironically, Jerry Lee Lewis is a first cousin to the weepy, disgraced Holy Roller Televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. Guess you could say the devil got his claws real deep into that clan.

    1. A few years ago a friend of mine came into possession of some reel-to-reel tapes that had belonged to his father-in-law, a private
      detective. One of the tapes was of a tent show; a gospel revival show headlined by Jimmy Swaggart. The show was recorded some
      time in the 50’s, and followed a pattern of music, followed by preaching, followed by more music, etc. It started out mellow, with a gentle sermon and an old-timey barbershop quartet sounding musical act, and each cycle of preaching and music escalated in energy and intensity until Swaggart took the stage. He played music as well as preached, and I have to say that as much as I despise the man’s preaching, his music kicked ass! He definitely had some of Jerry Lee’s intensity and probably could have been a rock and roll star if he’d followed a better path!

      Mickey Gilley is also a cousin to Jerry Lee Lewis. Here they are performing together (the duets start at about 6:40)


      Jerry Lee, in my opinion, is one of America’s all time great showmen. He still puts out albums every few years, and even on his latest outings really knows how to deliver a killer performance. I guess that’s why the call him “The Killer”!!!

      Jerry (Jerry Coyne, not Jerry Lee!), how was the musicianship in the play? Did the actors play instruments as well as sing?

  5. I strongly recommend the excellent film, Walk the Line, about Johnny Cash’s struggles.

    Also, the At Folsom Prison “Legacy Edition” CD/DVD, whicb provides the full recordings of both Folsom Prison shows in 1968 and the film of the concerts (DVD).

  6. JC:’It’s also one of only four rock songs I know of that mention the word “chicken”.’

    K: Is one of them “Chicken Necks” by Don & Juan?

    1. What about Rock Island Line, by Lonnie Donegan “Get your chicken at the station for the Rock Island Line”

      H/t Stan Freberg.

  7. I am glad to know you are a great fan of this music, which is the popular music (along with Fats Domino of course) I grew up on! I have a CD of JL Lewis called Live at the Star Club in Hamburg (1964). It’s one of the more powerfully rocking performances out there, if you get a chance to find it.

    Carl Perkins is of course still around. I think he performed on the Music for Montserrat concert, along with Mark Knopfler and other current artists.

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