The Story of the Million Dollar Quartet

Musicology

It’s 1956 in the United States. Black and white portable television sets have hit the market. Rocky Marciano has retired as the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world with a perfect record of 49-0. ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ is sitting at number one on the Billboard Charts. And on an otherwise unremarkable day in December, the greatest jam session of all time is taking place in Memphis, Tennessee.

By all accounts, it was by pure chance that Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley found themselves together in a recording booth at Sun Studios that day. The rock and roll haven belonging to music mogul Sam Phillips was already playing an important part in shaping the future of music before playing host to the impromptu quartet. It was the studio where a young Elvis Presley chose to record a few tracks as a present for his mother in 1954. Phillips was the ear that recognised talent when he heard it (with a little push from his assistant Marion Keisker) and called Presley back to record some more. And when four unparalleled musicians sat around the piano at his studio and started to sing, Phillips was smart enough to call the press and document the historic moment.

 

The Million Dollar Quartet has taken on a mythical quality in the years since December 4, 1956. Speculation over voices featured on the recordings, the presence and absence of certain musicians, and even the order of arrivals runs rampant in any dialogue surrounding the session. But despite the disagreements over details, the knowledge that this day marks a seminal moment in the history of rock and roll is undisputed.

 

The order of arrivals on December 4, 1956 begins with Perkins and Lewis. Alongside his brothers Clayton and Jay, plus drummer W.S. Holland, Perkins was preparing to record his song ‘Matchbox’. Suspecting the rockabilly set up wouldn’t quite cut it, Phillips had called in Lewis, a newly acquired artist on the Sun rotation, to play piano on the track. The third piece that formed the fortuitous series of events that led to the greatest short-lived quartet in music history is that Johnny Cash just so happened to be at Sun Studios at the same time. The exact reason for his presence isn’t entirely clear, but such minute details are easily glossed over in the light of what happened next.

 

By 1956, Elvis Presley had moved on from Sun Studios. He’d signed a contract with RCA Victor, released his first single ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, and made his film debut in Love Me Tender. His affinity for Sun, however, appeared to have remained strong when he chose to stop by the studio that day with Marilyn Evans, his girlfriend at the time. Before long, Presley, Perkins, Cash and Lewis were in the same room of the famous studios, gathered around a piano and preparing to gift the world with 46 short recordings that would stand the test of time.

 

 

Jack Clement, the engineer at Perkins’ session, is the unspoken hero of this moment. He had the foresight to hit record once the musicians started to perform, giving future generations the chance to witness one of the most revered moments in rock and roll history. The session that followed was littered with country standards and gospel favourites, featuring everything from ‘Peace In The Valley’ to ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’, performed with ever-increasing enthusiasm.

 

The strength of the quartet was found not in their individual abilities, but by their shared energy on ‘When The Saints Go Marchin’ In’, the balance of their talents on ‘Paralyzed’, and the overwhelming care that permeated every note on each gospel song. All things considered, calling them a Million Dollar Quartet was selling them short.

 

Throughout the two hours of recordings, snippets of anecdotes are weaved through the tracks. One story that stands out surrounds Presley’s 1956 hit ‘Don’t Be Cruel’, a track that features not once but three times on The Complete Million Dollar Quartet. We hear Presley tell the story of a young Jackie Wilson, performing as lead vocalist of Billy Ward and His Dominoes, giving a memorable rendition of the track at a show in Las Vegas.

 

“He’d already done ‘Hound Dog’ and another one too and he didn’t do too well, you know,” Presley can be heard explaining on the recording, speaking of his experience watching Wilson on stage. “He was trying too hard. But he done that ‘Don’t Be Cruel’. He was trying so hard, but he got better, boy [laughs] … Four nights straight. I went back four nights straight and heard that guy do that.”

 

Then one of the most distinctive, admired, and imitated voices in music launched into a rendition of his own song - Elvis Presley singing as Jackie Wilson impersonating Elvis Presley. You couldn’t make it up.

 

 

Of the 46 tracks recorded that day, there are few anyone would be able to dismiss without comment. But the question remains of whether there are more tracks yet to be uncovered. Three reels were found and released, forming the The Complete Million Dollar Quartet album we now know, but multiple accounts suggest there could be more of this collaboration yet to surface. Some say Presley also sang ‘This Train is Bound for Glory’ and ‘Vacation in Heaven’, others are certain the group took on ‘Tutti Frutti’ and ‘Big Boss Man’.

 

It’s not hard to imagine someone raiding lost archives in years to come, dusting off a reel of tape and discovering the lost recordings of the Million Dollar Quartet. Unfortunately, it’s also not difficult to admit the 46 songs we have may be all there is to hear.

 

Perhaps one day we’ll hear more from that December afternoon in 1956. For now, the fact we were fortunate to hear those recordings at all is more than enough to be thankful for.

 

Find out more about how the Nashville sound came to dominate music here

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