The Million Dollar Quartet

million dollar quartet

“Million Dollar Quartet” is a recording of an impromptu jam session involving Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash made on 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 17 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 as 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 wanted to try to fatten this sparse rockabilly instrumentation, had brought in his latest acquisition, Jerry Lee Lewis, still unknown outside Memphis, to play piano (at the time, a Wurlitzer Spinet) on the Perkins session. Sometime in the early afternoon, 21-year-old Elvis Presley, a former Sun artist now at RCA, dropped in to pay a casual visit accompanied by a girlfriend, Marilyn Evans.[2]

After chatting with Phillips 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 wrote 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. Bob Johnson, the newspaper’s entertainment editor, came over to the studios with UPI representative Leo Soroca and a photographer. Johnson wrote an article about the session, which appeared the following day in the Press-Scimitar under the headline “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).

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