On an auspicious Tuesday in early December, 1956, four of the greatest rock and roll musicians ever met in the Memphis Recording Services Studios (home of the famed Sun Records company) for one of the most monumental recording sessions ever. What a scene it must have been to be in the studio when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis were all there jamming and having some fun! The impromptu group has come to be known as the Million Dollar Quartet.
It seems that the whole event happened by chance. Sun Records recording star Carl Perkins and his brothers had dropped into the studio to record some new material that would be the follow up to his smash hit “Blue Suede Shoes.” Jerry Lee Lewis, another Sun Records artist, was brought in to play piano on the recordings. Apparently by pure chance a third Sun artist, Johnny Cash, dropped into the studio that day. And finally, as if fate were tugging at all of them, Elvis–who by this time had left Sun Records and signed with RCA Victor and was the biggest star in pop music already–dropped in to pay a visit to his old friend Sam Phillips who owned the studio and Sun Records and gave Elvis his start in the music business.
Well, it’s difficult to imagine having four such amazing talents in the same studio without some music happening and before long the four began to goof around and jam. Eventually it dawned on the studio engineer that this was history in the making and he pressed the record button on the tape machine to capture some of the magic.
Phillips too realized something big was happening and called the Memphis Press-Scimitar newspaper to let them know what he had going on in his studio. The paper sent a reporter and photographer over. A story appeared in the next day’s paper, but it’s a photograph that ran with the story that has endured and found itself firmly placed in rock and roll lore. The photo shows a singing Elvis at the piano with Cash, Lewis, and Perkins huddled around singing along. It’s a marvelous photo of four superstars that had not yet been jaded by the excessive success they all attained. There is still innocence and wonder in their expressions. Each of the four would see terrible battle with the excesses of drugs and other problems within a very short time of this magic session, but here they’re just kids having a great time.
Interestingly enough, none of the recordings from this session seem to have seen the light of day until they began to surface after Phillips sold the Sun Records catalog in 1969. The new owner, Shebly Singleton, began pouring through hours and hours of tape and eventually stumbled upon the forgotten Million Dollar Quartet recordings. It wasn’t until 1981 that any of these recordings were released. Most all of the songs included in the release were gospel songs the four had vamped in the studio that day.
Eventually, 46 musical tracks were discovered and release along with lots of chatter in between. These were not polished recordings. Since the four didn’t even realize they would be recording together, they hadn’t rehearsed and many of the recordings are just partial songs that they were goofing around with. Even still, this survives as one of the most amazing recording sessions in history. What an experience it must have been to be in the studio when it all went down!
Buster Fayte is an author and rockabilly musician. He Blogs at “Buster Fayte’s Rockabilly Romp” where he writes about the passion he shares with millions of musicians and fans for rockabilly and oldies music. Buster has written several books including the “Complete Home Music Recording Start Kit”. He writes original songs, sings, and plays both guitar and bass.
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