December 4, 1956: What Was the “Million Dollar Quartet?”

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A Brief History

On December 4, 1956, Sun Records Studio in Memphis, Tennessee was the location of an impromptu jam session by 4 of the rising stars of the Rock and Roll Era.  Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis got together and made music in an unplanned moment of musical serendipity, bringing together for the one and only time these future legends.  Lucky for us, the recordings still exist!

Digging Deeper

At the time of the jam session, Elvis had already hit the big time and had moved from Sun Records to RCA, and had just dropped by to say hi to Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records, while Carl Perkins had just made it with his monster hit, “Blue Suede Shoes” and was at the studio to make some recordings.

Jerry Lee Lewis was not yet a star, and had been hired to play piano for Perkins’ recording session.  Johnny Cash had some success with country/rockabilly music at Sun, including his hit “I Walk the Line” from a few months prior.

Cash later said he came to the studio to listen in on Perkins’ recording session.

The 4 future legends began their friendly jam session, while the studio engineer was on the ball enough to realize the value of recording the songs.  Going over mostly Gospel songs that all 4 singers were familiar with, as they played and sang Phillips astutely called a couple of newspaper reporters over to the studio to write about the jam session.  The next day the Memphis Press-Scimitar featured an article titled “The Million Dollar Quartet” complete with a photo of the 4 musical greats gathered around the piano, singing away.

Recordings of the music made that fateful day were not made public until 1981 when a partial record of the session was released titled The Million Dollar Quartet.  Most of the 17 tracks on the album were gospel and spiritual type songs.  In 1987 more material from the jam session was found and included on a new album, The Complete Million Dollar Sessions, this time with a CD version available.  A 1990 version of the album was created, and in 2006 an even more definitive version was released as a 50th Anniversary edition, featuring an additional 12 minutes of music taken from Elvis Presley’s personal copies of the recording session.  The latest compilation features 46 tracks, nearly every thing believed to have been recorded that day, with only a couple songs that may have missed being recorded (or at least not found so far).

In 1982, Lewis, Perkins, and Cash produced an album called The Survivors Live (Elvis had died in 1977) and a 1986 album called The Class of ’55 featured the 3 “survivors” plus Roy Orbison.  Interviews made during the production of The Class of ’55 were made into a spoken word album, and won the Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album of 1987.

A musical play version of the events of December 4, 1956 called Million Dollar Quartet was produced in 2007, enjoying great success and finding its way to Broadway in 2010 where it ran for 489 performances until moving to off-Broadway.  The musical was nominated for a Tony Award in 2010.

Carl Perkins died in 1998, and Johnny Cash joined Elvis and Carl in music heaven in 2003.  Only Jerry Lee Lewis is left, hanging in there at 82 years old.  Like the Righteous Brothers said in a 1972 song, “If there’s a rock and roll heaven, well you know they’ve got a hell of a band!”

Question for students (and subscribers): Who is your favorite member of this quartet?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Miller, Stephen.  The Million Dollar Quartet: Jerry Lee, Carl, Elvis & Johnny.  Omnibus Press, 2013.

The featured image in this article, a photograph of The Million Dollar Quartet (L to R: Jerry Lee LewisCarl PerkinsElvis Presley and Johnny Cash), is a faithful digitisation of a unique historic image, and the copyright for it is most likely held by the person who created the image or the agency employing the person.  It is believed that the use of this image may qualify as fair use under the Copyright law of the United States.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.