The Million Dollar Quartet | December 4, 1956

By: Elvis Australia
July 4, 2022

The 'Million Dollar Quartet' is a recording of an impromptu jam session involving Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash (According to Cash) and made on December 4, 1956, at 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'.

Carl 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 record some new material, at at his fathers suggestion began working on 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. Lewis's first Sun single would be released a few days later.

Sometime in the early afternoon, 21-year-old Elvis Presley, (a former Sun artist) now with RCA Victor, arrived to pay a casual visit accompanied by a girlfriend, Marilyn Evans. After chatting with Phillips in the control room, Elvis listened to the playback of Perkins' session, which he pronounced to be good. Then he went 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 hit records on the country charts, arrived as well. (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'.

Whatever Elvis' feelings may or may not have been in regard to 'following' Lewis, Presley was clearly the 'star' of the impromptu jam session, which consisted largely of snippets of gospel songs that the four artists had all grown up singing. The recordings show Elvis, the most nationally and internationally famous of the four at the time, to be the focal point of what was a casual, spur-of-the-moment gathering of four artists who would each go on to contribute greatly to the seismic shift in popular music in the late 1950s.

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).

The 'Million Dollar Quartet'. Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley. December 4, 1956.
The 'Million Dollar Quartet'. Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley. December 4, 1956.

'That was when Elvis walked in. Naturally everything came to a halt as the musicians all gathered around Elvis and his girlfriend, a dancer from Las Vegas, and Sam, who was accustomed to Elvis' unannounced drop-ins, welcomed him warmly but in a way that was not going to draw attention away from his present-day musicians. He no longer had any worries about Elvis finding his voice at RCA. When 'Don't Be Cruel' had come out that summer, it had finally set his mind at ease. He didn't give a damn about 'Hound Dog', the A-side - as far as he was concerned, it couldn't touch Big Mama's original - but when he first heard 'Don't Be Cruel', driving back from Daytona Beach, Florida, with Becky and the boys, 'I practically drove off the road. When I heard that vamp, I said, 'Glory Hallelujah, now there is a groove'.

It was 'a sad story with a happy beat', but more than that, for the first time, it seemed like Elvis himself was really in charge. 'It was the total spontaneity. And the rhythm was moving along just right - it [was] pushing him, [but] he still had command'. But that was what differentiated Elvis from so many of these other boys, Sam felt: Elvis could learn from his mistakes, where they were just destined to repeat them.

'They started off just fooling around, singing snatches of various remembered songs in between excited conversation as they gathered around the piano. Sam immediately recognized the potential, if only for a publicity photo, and he called Johnny Cash, who said he had to do some Christmas shopping with his wife but he could come down to the studio for a few minutes. Then he called Bob Johnson at the Press-Scimitar and the bureau chief of the local UPI wire service, Leo Soroka, and by the time they arrived John was already there, and he and his two fellow Sun stars, Carl and Jerry Lee, grouped around Elvis at the piano. There they all are, poised to burst into song, with Jerry Lee unsurprisingly leaning in, Carl with a tight-lipped look of serious concentration, John in a striped, collegiate-style windbreaker, and Elvis looking expectantly over his shoulder at his musical colleagues, as his house guest, Marilyn Evans, sits on top of the piano in what could have been a cheesecake shot were it not for her very modest informal attire.

'This was his 'Million Dollar Quartet', Sam proudly announced, with the 1956 equivalent of air quotes, as Elvis, Bob Johnson reported in his 'TV News and Views' column, 'started to Fats Domino it on 'Blueberry Hill', [and] that very unrehearsed but talented bunch got to cutting up on [that] and a lot of other songs'. It was, as Johnson astutely described, 'an old-fashioned barrelhouse session with barbershop harmony'.

Soon the reporters left, and so did Johnny Cash, but the music went on. Sam had Jack turn on the 'tape recorder - or perhaps Jack just took the initiative ('I thought all that carrying on ought to be recorded') - but no one bothered to position the mikes or balance the sound, Sam and Jack were out on the floor as much as they were in the control room, it was all strictly unplanned'.

'They sang just about every type of song they knew - blues, bluegrass, spirituals, pop, and r&b - with Elvis taking the lead, accompanied at first by Carl and his brothers, with Smokey Joe Baugh, the gravel-voiced half of 'Split Personality', on piano. Elvis introduced a number of songs, but perhaps the most fascinating was his own 'Don't Be Cruel', which he said he had heard performed by 'this guy in Las Vegas [with] Billy Ward and His Dominoes that was doing a take-off on me. He tried so hard till he got much better, boy, much better than that record of mine'. There are polite but vehement murmurs of demurral'.

The 'Million Dollar Quartet'. Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, (With Elvis' date, Marilyn Evans). December 4, 1956.
The 'Million Dollar Quartet'. Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, (With Elvis' date, Marilyn Evans). December 4, 1956.

'No, wait now, I mean, he was real slender, he was a colored guy, he got up there and he'd say - ' And here Elvis began to perform the song in imitation of the singer imitating him. 'He had it a little slower than me ... He got the backing, the whole quartet, they got the feeling on it, he was hitting it, boy. Grabbed that microphone, and on the last note he went all the way down to the floor, man, looking straight up at the ceiling. M'an, he was cutting out. I was under the table when he got through singing ... And all the time he was singing, them feet was going in and out, both ways, sliding like this ... He's a Yankee, you know', said Elvis, remarking with bemusement upon the singer's pronunciation of 'tellyphone', and then singing the song, with that pronunciation, and in the singer's style, over and over again. 'All he needed was a building or something to jump off', says someone, won over by the sheer enthusiasm of Elvis' description. 'That's all he needed', agrees the unknown singer's foremost admirer. 'Man, that would've made a big ending'.

Not too long afterward Elvis jumps into Chuck Berry's 'Brown Eyed Handsome Man', and that sets off an almost adulatory discussion of Berry's singing and songwriting abilities. 'I just come back from a five-week tour with him', says Carl as they tease out the lyrics, laughing out loud at all the clever twists and turns the song takes. 'You ought to hear some of his stuff, setting around', says Carl. 'Man, he set down behind the stage, and just - ' Everyone expresses their unqualified admiration, including Sam. 'That's a rolling stone', says 'someone, borrowing one of Sam's favorite expressions of approbation, as Elvis comes back to the song again and again.

They all contribute to the music and the mood - Carl sings a beautiful version of Wynn Stewart's recently released country classic, 'Keeper of the Keys', and there are ragged harmonies galore. But at the heart of the session, inevitably, are the spirituals on which they all grew up, with Jerry Lee flinging himself into the high harmonies with unrestrained, if occasionally unfocused, abandon, and even though Sally has told me that Sam didn't do any singing, I like to think I can hear that bass voice of which he was so inordinately proud joining in.

'Softly and Tenderly', 'Just a Little Talk With Jesus', 'I Shall Not Be Moved', 'I Just Can't Make It By Myself' ('Me and Elvis knew the words to every song, because we were raised up in the same church', said Jerry Lee. 'People wouldn't know that, but that's the way it was') - there is no mistaking the fervor in the voices. 'Boy, this is fun!' Jerry Lee exclaims at one point, as Smokey Joe Baugh says, 'You oughta get up a quartet'.

It is a moment of perfect innocence. It is also, in many ways, a moment of pure vindication, the proof for Sam that somehow this music - the music of poor blacks and poor whites that had been overlooked for so long - was not going to be forgotten. At the end Jerry Lee Lewis, who has been not so patiently biding his time, finally gets his chance in the spotlight, as he tears through one song after another to everyone's indulgent appreciation. 'That boy can go', Elvis has already informed Bob Johnson. 'The way he plays piano just gets inside me'. And now he proves it. Conversations are continued, everyone makes plans to get back together again sometime soon. 'That's why I hate to start these jam sessions', says Elvis. 'I'm always the last on'one to leave'. You can hear doors slamming, and conversations trailing off. And then it's over.

It meant so much, said Sam, almost because it was so totally unplanned. 'It was totally extemporaneous. Everything was off mike - if it was on mike it was by accident. [But] I think this little chance meeting meant an awful lot to all those people not because one was bigger than another [but because] we all started out at this place, every person in that room was electrified by the fact that we were together'. It was in many ways, Sam told British journalist Roy Carr in 1980, like an old-time revival meeting, with each person in the room 'motivated by the same common denominator ... The only way I can best describe exactly what happened that day is to liken it to a spiritual awakening through music'.

Sam used the story that ran in the paper the next day as an ad in the form of a letter to DJs, with the picture front and center and a handwritten message appended at the bottom. 'Our only regret!' it began. '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!

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The songs recorded :

Love Me Tender - Instrumental 
Jingle Bells - Instrumental 
White Christmas - Instrumental 
Reconsider Baby 
Don't Be Cruel 
Don't Be Cruel 
Don't Be Cruel 
There's No Place Like Home 
When The Saints Go Marchin' In 
Softly And Tenderly 
When God Dips His Love In My Heart 
Just A Little Talk With Jesus 
Jesus Walked That Lonesome Valley (with extra verse) 
I Shall Not Be Moved 
Peace In The Valley 
Down By The Riverside 
I'm With The Crowd But So Alone 
Father Along 
Blessed Jesus Hold My Hand 
On The Jericho Road 
I Just Can't Make It By Myself 
Little Cabin Home On The Hill 
Summertime Is Past And Gone 
Sweetheart, You Done Me Wrong 
Keeper Of The Key (Carl Perkins - Lead) 
Crazy Arms 
Crazy Arms 
Don't Forbid Me 
Too Much Monkey Business 
Brown Eyed Handsome Man 
Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind 
Brown Eyed Handsome Man 
Don't Forbid Me 
You Belong To My Heart 
Is It So Strange 
That's When Your Heartaches Begin 
Brown Eyed Handsome Man 
Rip It Up 
I'm Gonna Bid My Blues Goodbye 
Crazy Arms 
That's My Desire (with extra verse) 
End Of The Road 
Black Bottom Stomp 
You're The Only Star In My Blue Heaven 
(Elvis Says Goodbye)

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