INNOCENT WORDS BLOG SERIES: 12 Moments Which Shaped Music – The Million Dollar Quartet


The Million Dollar Quartet (l-r) Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, johnny Cash, Elvis Presley (sitting)

I will be honest here. The future of music scares me. With the digital revolution consuming music and music listeners, the art of music, its artists, and the history of music seems to be gone with a click of the mouse on the delete button.

As a music writer and music fan (music nerd, if you will), I don’t want the musical past to be erased with the click of a mouse. I love more than anything the history of music. If it wasn’t for the past, we, as music fans, wouldn’t be enjoying what we have today.

With this 2016 Innocent Words Blog Series, we are going to take a look at 12 events which shaped, even changed, the face of music. Events which not only influenced me as a music fan, but influenced the world of music as a whole.
I’ve spent my fair share amount of time in the recording studio either interviewing bands or just hanging out. I don’t know a thing about recording, but I’ve always found the recording studio to be a magical place. On one wall you have guitars, on the other there are stacks of amplifiers, then there are countless microphones and drum kits. In the recording room is the massive console containing hundreds of buttons and knobs. Combined, it’s a place of beauty. This is, and forgive me for this, where the magic happens. This is where art is in its infancy, where ideas become songs and songs become records. It couldn’t be more beautiful.

Now, imagine yourself in this heavenly place, watching four young up-and-coming singers sitting around deciding to record just for fun. Sure, it happens all the time with musicians, but rarely do four musicians at one recording session go on to be legendary super stars.

On December 4, 1956, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley gathered together at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee, in a small brick building known as Sun Record Studios.

The story goes that Carl Perkins booked some time at Sun to record a few new songs to follow up his hit song “Blue Suede Shoes.” With his brothers, Clayton and Jay, drummer W.S. Holland, and Sun Records owner Sam Phillips at the control, Perkins was going to record the blues standard “Matchbox.” Phillips, not satisfied with the thin sounding recording, brought in an unknown outside of Memphis, Jerry Lee Lewis, to add in piano. Later in the afternoon, by chance, Elvis and his girlfriend Marilyn Evans stopped by Sun to visit with Phillips. Elvis was just 21 at the time and had recently left Sun for RCA Victor, but remained friends with Phillips. Elvis listened to the tracks Perkins and company were laying down and enjoyed them. He went in to the studio to talk with Perkins.

Johnny Cash, who had recently had a few hit records on Sun on the country charts, was already at the studio to watch Perkins record. All four future legends were in the studio and a spontaneous jam session broke out with Cash, Perkins, Lewis, and Presley all playing and singing the gospel songs that they had grown up with. Engineer Jack Clement said “I think I’d be remiss not to record this,” and he pressed the record button.

While the four were having their spur-of-the-moment session, Phillips recognized greatness when he heard and saw it, so he called up the local newspaper, the Memphis Press-Scimitar, and entertainment editor Bob Johnson came down to Sun Records to chronicle the events. Johnson’s story appeared in the next day’s paper with the title “Million Dollar Quartet.” Along with the story were the (now famous) photos of Elvis sitting down at the piano surrounded by Lewis, Perkins, and Cash.

For more than a decade, the recording session sat on the shelves at Sun Records collecting dust. Then Phillips decided to sell the studio and it was bought by Shelby Singleton in 1969. At the time of his purchase of Sun, Singleton commissioned a deal with the British Charly label to reissue the majority of the Sun Records catalog in Europe.

Singleton went through the Sun archives and listened to more than 10,000 hours of recordings. Singleton came across the famous recording session of the four men and released it overseas in 1981 as Charly/Sun LP #1006 ‘The Million Dollar Quartet.’ The album featured a total of 17 tracks. A few years after the release, Singleton and his crew came across even more tapes of the recording session and rereleased the legendary sessions once again as Charly/Sun 2 LP set #CDX 20 ‘The Complete Million Dollar Session.’ Three years later, in 1990, the album was finally officially released in the United States under Elvis Presley’s name and titled ‘The Million Dollar Quartet.’

Now, if you ask me, and this is just my conspiracy theorist mind at work, I believe Singleton had found the entire recording session but only released parts of it in the initial releasing knowing that if he claimed to find more of the session people would rebuy the album and he’d make even more money. I could be wrong here, since, like I said, I don’t know too much about recording studios. However, I know enough to know that record producers keep recording sessions together, if not in one box, at least next to each other. And why did Singleton take nearly a decade to reissue the recordings in America and do so under Elvis’ name?

As record labels will do, they are in it for the quick cash grab. On the 50th anniversary of the recording session, RCA Records released a newer version of the famous recording session with 12 unheard songs never before released.

Keep in mind, this was an impromptu jam session, and the songs on the record are raw and unrehearsed. There is a lot of talking in between songs and the cover songs of Bill Monroe, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Gene Autry, and others aren’t fully realized. But they are good, they are historical, and something like that will most likely never happen again with four future legends.