Tue August 9, 2011
Jammin' with the Million Dollar Quartet
By Rob Grayson
Memphis, TN – By December, 1956, Elvis Presley was a movie star, had topped the national Billboard charts for a record number of weeks, and was back home in Memphis. Home for Elvis, at the time, was on Audubon Drive. Graceland was owned by a musician, but it was a harpist, Ruth Marie Moore, great-niece of Grace Toof, whose name graced the property. Elvis was making the rounds December 4th, seeing the old hometown, catching up with friends, and stopping by the old workplace.
Since Elvis departed Sun Records in late 1955, owner Sam Phillips had pressed on, investing some of the windfall from selling Presley's contract in looking for and developing the next big stars. Warren Smith showed promise. With the song Rock and Roll Ruby, he hit the number one spot locally, and outsold the initial Sun releases of Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash.
Johnny Cash had a number 17 hit nationally with I Walk the Line, which would eventually find its way into the Grammy and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame.
Then there was the fireball piano-pounder from Ferriday, Louisiana, Jerry Lee Lewis. The coming year would mark his national breakthrough. But 1956 paved the way with his Sun single, Crazy Arms.
Carl Perkins made the top five nationally with the original recording of Blue Suede Shoes, despite the fact that the Elvis cover version was on the charts at the same time. Perkins' version out-sold and out-charted the Presley cover number two to number 20. Carl's follow-up, Boppin' the Blues made it up to number 70. A few of his non-charting 1956 recordings would get the attention of a couple of budding musicians in Liverpool, England. The resulting cover versions would bring Perkins a good bit of attention in the mid-60's.
So, when Elvis Presley dropped by to see his buddies at the old workplace, Sun Studios, that December day in 1956, his gaggle of old pals had already sold, or would soon sell, millions of records. Carl Perkins was there finishing up a session; Jerry Lee Lewis was there playing piano for the session. Either Johnny Cash was there before everyone else or someone called him to come in, depending on whose version of the story you believe. But all four stars were in the same room at the same time, with instruments at hand, hot microphones all around, and engineer Jack Clements running the tape recorder. Sam Phillips called in Memphis Press Scimitar photographer Bob Johnson to document the moment in black-and-white. The paper ran a story, and the headline, "Million Dollar Quartet," sealed the moment in time.
The superstar jam session meandered through Christmas songs, lots of country and lots of gospel. Citing an experience he had in Las Vegas, Elvis imitated Jackie Wilson imitating Elvis on Don't Be Cruel. When all had sung their fill, everyone said their goodbyes, and Elvis left the building.
The tapes themselves went into the archives until Sun Records was sold. The new owner struck up a deal with British label Charly records. Their combined research turned up the tapes, and a portion was released in 1981, with more coming to light in 1987.
The surviving members of that jam, joined by Roy Orbison came together in 1986 to record an album called Class of 55, a Memphis Rock and Roll Homecoming. And should you want to experience that magic day in December, 1956, you can do so nightly on stage, in New York, Chicago, London, or maybe coming to a theater near you.