The Million Dollar Quartet

ZZ Million dollar quartet

The Million Dollar Quartet/photo by Bob Johnson

It was a typical day that became untypical as four soon-to-be giants of the musical industry came together by accident.

It was December 4, 1956, at the Sun Records studio in Memphis. Carl Perkins, who had already had a successful recording of “Blue Suede Shoes,” had booked time at the studio to record some new material including his version of the blues song “Matchbox.”

Sam Philips, the owner of Sun Records and the studio, had Perkins under contract along with Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. Elvis Presley had originally signed with Sun, but Sam had sold his contract to RCA Records for $35,000.

Sam had brought in Lewis—who was still an unknown talent but a fireball piano player—to spruce up the instrumentation of Perkins’ song and change it from blues to rockabilly. Cash was a friend of Perkins and had come to listen to the session.

On this particular day, Elvis, who had recently appeared in Las Vegas, was in Memphis and was cruising around town with his then girlfriend, Marilyn Evans, a showgirl from Las Vegas. Looking for something to do, Elvis decided to stop by the Sun studio where he had recorded his first record three years earlier.

Elvis and Marilyn joined Sam and the engineer that day, Jack Clements, in the control booth. After a conversation with Philips, Presley listened to the playback of Perkins session along with Cash. Both agreed it was good.

Elvis and Cash proceed into the studio to talk with Perkins about the session. As it happens among musicians, talk led to a jam session. Call it fate that Jack Clements decided to record the session. What was recorded over the next few hours gave a glimpse of the talent of four future musical legends as they combined their talents on gospel, country and blues.

Sam Philips, always looking for publicity, telephoned Bob Johnson, the entertainment editor of the Memphis Press-Scimitar and encouraged him to come to the studio. Johnson is the one who took the photo.

ZZ Jerry Lee Lewis

Doug Thompson showing collision area on Jerry Lee Lewis’s Cadillac/photo by Jim Callicott

Lewis and Presley had at least one other collaboration, this one involving their Cadillac’s. According to Doug Thompson, with the Elvis Museum in Pigeon Forge, the two decided to play chicken with their cars. Neither flinched and the resulting collision damaged both cars right front fenders.

Jerry Lee Lewis’ 1954 Coupe de Ville Cadillac is on display at the Elvis Museum. It was purchased at an IRS Auction in Memphis on October 22, 1980, by Mike L. Moon, owner of the museum. Elvis’ purple Cadillac is on display at Graceland. Both show evidence of the fenders being repaired.

The tape of that session was laid aside and forgotten, not to be discovered until 1980. It was released in Europe in 1981 but did not hit the U.S. market until 1990 as “Elvis Presley – The Million Dollar Quartet.”

Kenny Lovelace, Jerry Lee Lewis’ band leader for the past 47 years, said that Lewis has rarely mentioned the incident. Of the four, Lewis is the only one still living.

It was the only time the four would sing together. Years later Carl Perkins would play in Cash’s band, The Tennessee Three, after the death of guitarist Luther Perkins, no relation to Carl.

It was just a typical day that became history.

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