Tim Van Schmidt
It was a meeting of musical titans. It was a summit of some of the coolest cats in the world.
I’m talking about the so-called “Million Dollar Quartet” meeting between Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash at Sun Studios in Memphis on December 4, 1956 — 65 years ago this week.
But you don’t have to imagine what went on that afternoon among some of the most ambitious musicians of the day. You can hear it all because the wise guys in the recording booth kept the tape rolling.
Today, you can hear the whole thing — every note, every joke; the stories, and the jams. The recordings are readily available in edited and complete versions.
Added to this, the legendary meeting was also turned into a Broadway touring production — “Million Dollar Quartet” — dramatizing the action in the recording studio and playing the music.
For perspective, Sun Records in Memphis had a solid roster of artists which not only spawned Presley’s rise to fame, but many others including Perkins, Cash, and Lewis plus Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison, and Sonny Burgess. This was a powerhouse place at the right time and the right place to influence popular music.
What I found when I listened to “The Complete Million Dollar Quartet” CD — featuring the entire session presented in its original sequence — was fun. OK, that’s not a very critical term, but that is how I can best sum it up.
This was not a session to make a record, this was a session just to fool around, exchange ideas, and tell stories. There are some complete songs here, but there are also long stretches of chit-chat, start and stop snatches of songs, and general chaos from a situation that was not meant to be presented to the public.
This is a peek inside the personalities of some of the great musical names of the time. And what is there isn’t mind-staggering in the least — it’s just a bunch of guys who love playing music doing just that.
The meeting happened at Sun Studios following a Perkins session that also included Lewis. According to the stories, Sun owner Sam Phillips called Cash, who stopped by but did not take a big part in the music-making, if at all.
Of course, that’s what the rest of them do. They keep their instruments handy and launch into various songs, laughing, and trying out different stuff.
Presley seems to take charge of the room during the jam and keeps a kind of running monologue going as it proceeds. He tells stories about seeing other vocalists imitating him and illustrates them in song for his friends, showing a restless interest in other vocal styles.
You get the sense Presley felt comfortable in the little studio with musical peers, far away from Hollywood and being an international recording star. This goes a long way toward revealing that Presley was not just a music industry tool, but a knowledgeable, experienced vocalist with a distinctive, down-home charm.
Presley can’t help but gravitate toward vocal music and the group digs back to songs apparently they were all familiar with. In the “Million Dollar Quartet” sessions, there isn’t a very big divide at all between gospel and rock and roll.
These guys make mistakes — dropping lyrics, messing up chords, stopping abruptly. It’s a little chaotic, but out of it, you get a sense of what was going on in Memphis in 1956 — an energetic new generation of musicians were turning a big bag of old influences into something new again.
The music is all over the map. There are references to current work, such as Presley’s hit “Don’t Be Cruel”. There are some country tunes by Faron Young, Hank Snow, and Ernest Tubb as well as several Bill Monroe tunes.
There’s some Christmas music too — it’s just a few weeks before the holidays and the group noodles around on “Jingle Bells” and “White Christmas” to warm up at the beginning of the session.
However, what ends up feeling most comfortable to Presley and company is the traditional material. Songs such as “When the Saints Go Marching’ In” and “Down by the Riverside” inspire hearty sing-alongs, hand-clapping and more spirit than professional musical intent.
What’s interesting here is that all of this diverse music seems of equal interest to the Quartet. It’s all vital to them and they switch from pop to traditional without blinking an eye. These guys were walking songbooks — and were eager to play.
One of the tunes Presley sings is “There’s No Place Like Home” and perhaps that was how he felt about jamming in the old Sun Studios that day.
Soon afterward, Presley would retreat to his Graceland home and, after a stint in the Army, an active movie and recording career. Elvis Presley died in 1977.
Carl Perkins passed on in 1998. And Johnny Cash died in Nashville in 2003.
Jerry Lee Lewis still lives, age 86. Lewis was a guest musician for the encore of “Million Dollar Quartet” on Broadway in 2010.
On the “Million Dollar Quartet” tape, Lewis plays his own tune, “End of the Road”. Well, his old Sun Records buddies are still waiting for him to catch up at the end of the road. Maybe when he does, they can get to that next big recording session in the sky.
Tim Van Schmidt is a writer and photographer based in Fort Collins. Explore his channel on YouTube at “Time Capsules by Tim Van Schmidt.”