DECEMBER 4, 1956: THE STORY TOLD BY STEPHEN MILLER
What is clear above all else is that nobody definitively how events unfolded that state will ever be able to day in Memphis. A bunch of musicians got together by chance,
chatted and played some songs together for a few hours. Even allowing for the fact that one member of the group was already a star, a national sensation no less, such impromptu sessions were not particularly uncommon. It would never have occurred to anybody to make detailed notes of all that happened. If Sam Phillips had not
thought to set the tapes rolling at some point and call in a reporter, the chances are that the event would now be lost in the mists of time. It is fortunate for the history of popular music that this did not happen.
The recordings which have emerged, along with a lot of jumbled memories, provide a piece of music archeology. a fascinating snapshot of a crucial moment in the development
of the diverse range of popular music styles which have moved countless people all (ever the world ever since.
It might be argued that tapes, like pictures, don't lie. However, whilst they undoubtedly provide a lot of hard
evidence of what took place, there are still questions. When were they switched on? How many people were actually participating when the tapes were rolling? Did the
participants know they were being recorded? Answers to many of these questions, often contradictory, come from the piously unreliable medium of human memory.
The wider significance of the day
only started to come to light later, particularly after the death of Elvis Presley in 1977, and people interviewed on the subject were trying to remember its from one afternoon many
years in the past. No doubt they influenced by things other people had said or written. W.S. ''Fluke'' Holland, the drummer on the day, and one of
the very few people still alive who was actually there, states quite honestly that his recollections of the day are ''hazy'' at best and that he simply cannot recall most of the
specifics. However, with the aid of experts who, restored the tapes and teased out some of their long held secrets, many participants and others who have spoken
about, analysed researched the session, it is possible to construct a fairly detailed picture of the afternoon of December 4, 1956, when the world's first rock and
roll supergroup, jammed together for a time.
Sam Phillips was keen to conjure up another hit for Carl Perkins to match the phenomenal popularity achieved by ''Blue Suede Shoes'' earlier in 1956. Carl's subsequent releases that year,
Boppin' The Blues''/''All Mama's Children'' and ''I'm Sorry, I'm Not Sorry''/''Dixie Fried'', had not fared particularly well. Carl
had also been involved in a serious car crash and from a career point of view there had been a significant loss of momentum.
Sam was also aware that Carl, now fully recovered from his injuries, heavy touring commitments early in the
following year which meant there would be few opportunities to spend time in the studio. Like most people in America he had observed the incredibly rapid of
his former protege: Elvis Presley, who had recorded his own version of ''Blue Suede Shoes'' for RCA earlier in the year. Carl was briefly seen as a rival to Elvis;
nobody seriously thought this any more but Sam was nonetheless keen to exploit his commercial potential to the full without delay. He wanted to get some new hit songs
in the can with a view to keeping Carl's profile as high as possible.
Sam booked Carl and his band, brothers Clayton and Jay on bass and rhythm guitar respectively, and Fluke on drums, for some
sessions. For the one on December 4, 1956 he decided that Jerry Lee Lewis should play piano and told recently hired engineer Jack Clement to give him a call. In some ways this was a surprising
choice. Sam believed Jerry Lee was a star in the making and so he was perhaps not an obvious candidate for a session which would earn him a mere
$15. Sam was also well aware that Jerry Lee was self-confident to the point of arrogance and might annoy Carl; put bluntly, his personality might interfere with the success of
the session. That said, although Jerry Lee's first Sun single, ''Crazy Arms'', had been released on December 1, he was as yet unproven, and like the great
majority of artists that made records for Sun, had not yet achieved any significant success. Sam knew that Jerry Lee was an outstanding piano player and perhaps he suspected
that he might just help to bring something extra out of Carl's performances; perhaps he could sweeten his hard-edged sound, making it more attractive commercially.
For his part, Jerry Lee was quite happy to earn some money for the fast approaching festive season. His cousin J.W. Brown and his family, with whom he was lodging, had been trying to get him some regular work, without any success.
December 4 was a Tuesday, a pleasant early winter's day with no rain and little wind. By the afternoon the temperature had got up to about 18 degrees centigrade. Carl's
session would probably have started in the early afternoon. Also present in the studio were Sam Phillips, Jack Clement and Marion Keisker. Various others were already there too and some came and went in the course of the afternoon. Precise ls of exactly who was there and when have been lost in the sands of time.
Sam told Carl by phone that he had found a great new piano player or who would
be there on December 4, and the session marked first meeting of Carl and Jerry Lee. Carl was undoubtedly impressed by Jerry Lee's piano
pyrotechnics but he was irritated by manner. As ever, Jerry Lee was full of beans and full of himself. He did not even take compliments well. If told that his piano playing had been really good
on a particular song his likely response would be along the lines of, ''You ain't seen nothin' yet'', delivered with a smiling sneer.
As Carl listened to his boasts he thought to himself that as the
guy gave the world ''Blue Suede Shoes'', he perhaps had more reason than Jerry Lee to blow his trumpet. He also felt pangs of irritation at Sam's unbounded enthusiasm for Jerry Lee's abilities, although he to admit that what he was able to coax out of the upright spinet in the studio was truly remarkable. In order to eve the instrument
a fuller, livelier sound Jack Clement inserted thumbtacks into the stringhammers and then put the microphone under the piano.
There are varying accounts of just how many songs Carl and his laid down. No doubt plenty of ideas were
thrown around and various songs tried out. According to some reports Carl's father, was present for at least some of the time. This would have a rare occurrence;
according to some reports he had apparently embarrassed when a reporter asked him questions about his career which he could not answer. He felt he should get to know what Carl got up to in the studio.
to one report it was Buck who reminded Carl of an old twenties Blind Lemon Jefferson song called ''Match Box Blues''. Carl vaguely remembered a few of the key lyrics and in no time had come up with
his own version which he simply called ''Matchbox''. As soon as they worked it up they knew it was a winner. Several years later no less a band than
the Beatles covered it, probably because both George Harrison and Ringo Starr were Perkins fans. Another song laid down that day was a Carl original. ''Your True Love'', which, along with ''Matchbox'' was released as his single in January 1957. It is possible that Carl also recorded, or at least tried out, versions of Jimmie Davis'
''Sweethearts Or Strangers'' and the Fred Rose song ''Be Honest With Me'' as well as one of his own songs, ''Put Your Cat Clothes On''.
At some point in the afternoon Elvis, back home in Memphis for the festive season, was cruising around
town in one of his Cadillacs, perhaps the one he had customized in one of his favoured colour combinations for clothes: black and pink. He might well have
been doing some Christmas shopping. He was probably wearing a washy diamond ring. He was with a girlfriend, Marilyn Evans. Elvis had met her at the New Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas where he had played a series of concerts earlier in the year. The shows had been poorly received initially although by the end Elvis had won round the bemused
audiences, at least to some extent.
Marilyn Evans, a pretty brunette with dark eyes from Fresno, California, was a 19-year-old dancer who had appeared in floor shows at the New Frontier hotel as a chorus
girl. He had been dating her for a short while, almost certainly not on an exclusive basis. At the time of the session she was staying with Elvis at the family home. They spent their days riding motorcycles, watching movies and eating out; speaking years later she said the day at Sun had been great; he was young, I was young. I
loved it, it was terrifically exciting and wonderfully. She had been swept of her feet by the glamorous side of his star status lifestyle and was battered when he sent her a note suggesting a date. Ironically she had no particular interest in popular music, classical was more to her taste. It is probable that with Elvis and Marilyn
in the car that day was a disc jockey from Jackson, Cliff Gleaves, whom Elvis had met and got to know earlier in the when promoting his records.
Elvis drove past 706 Union Avenue and decided to stop and check
what was happening. This might have been purely on a whim in which case it would not have been unusual. Since parting company with Sam at the end of 1955, Elvis had remained on good terms with and had stopped in at the studio on a number of occasions when pas back in Memphis. Sometimes he came by on his motorbike wearing black
leathers. Jack Clement later told an interviewer that time they thought he was a cop and that they were going to be busted. On this
particular December day there were some flashy cars parked outside and this might well have sparked his curiosity.
Elvis was now a major star so his arrival undoubtedly caused a stir. That said, it was not unusual for well known musicians to drop in sessions and listen to each other's work; in many ways his arrival was a fairly normal part of the life of a studio. Once Elvis and his small entourage
had entered the building, Carl's session came to a premature end. It was not long after they had nailed ''Matchbox''. Carl later said that in some ways it was a pity; he felt that he and the band were hitting their stride and laying down tracks of real quality. If they had been able to keep going, and of course at Sun there were no time
limits, perhaps they would even have come up with another piece of musical magic to rival ''Blue Suede Shoes''.
Carl had encountered Elvis at some of the rough honky-tonks they both played for a time. He had also appeared on the same bill as him on several occasions when they were on the way up and had got to know each other reasonably well. Like everyone else, Carl had been knocked out by what
Elvis did on stage. However, he had not seen him since he had hit the big time and immediately struck by the radical change in his appearance.
Gone was the acne that had caused him to wear his collar high. Now his skin was smooth like china. Before, his hair had been a nondescript sandy
colour; now it was a gleaming mass of brilliantine black. As Carl wrote later, ''Everything was right. . . he looked sharp and great''. It seems the hillbilly cat was already well on the
way to rock and roll royalty. This was despite the fact that he, like the others on this particular day, was not dressed to impress, all were kitted
out in fifties smart casual.
There are moments during the
recordings when Elvis betrays a level of excitable enthusiasm, verging on anxiety, to the extent that he sometimes stammers at the start of sentences. However he had grown in
confidence since the early days when Sam had described him as ''probably the most introverted person that ever came into Sun Studio. In similar vein, several
others commented on his former habit of nervously biting his fingernails.
Initially there was a lot of chat, back slapping, congratulations and general bonhomie. It all had the feeling of some kind
of reunion and indeed for Elvis, Carl and Johnny it was, they had toured together on a number of occasions in 1955; and of course it was a reunion of sorts for Elvis and Sam, though not the first.
Elvis introduced Marilyn as his ''house guest''. Inevitably he was the centre of attention and from the moment he arrived, events revolved
around him. It was all a bit like a former pupil who has done well and who was now returning to his place of learning to take some plaudits for his success, but also to catch up on what had been
happening since his departure.
There was recognition that he was extra special but they were all fellow professionals trying to make a living, keen to avoid the dead end existences of their parents, and
in that sense equals; not only that but they all knew where they had come from, scratching a living from menial work was a great leveller. Elvis talked about his stint at Las Vegas, his national television appearances and perhaps also the prospect of going into the army. At the time Elvis arrived, everybody had been listening to playbacks
of the songs that had just been recorded. Elvis listened too and said he was impressed by what heard, particularly ''Matchbook''.
Before long an informal jam session started up. As with all other events of the day nobody will ever know
the exact sequence of events. Some reports indicate that Jerry Lee Lewis arrived after Elvis but this cannot be right since he was playing on Carl's session
earlier the day and no-one has ever suggested that Elvis was present for that.
It seems most likely that Elvis was the initiator of the legendary session that followed, although any group of musicians
within arm's length of instruments will soon start making music; it is often difficult to say who fired the first shot. Carl Perkins expressed his recollection of the start of the session in down
to earth language. He recalled Elvis singing ''Blueberry Hill'' and then ''all of us scooting around the piano'' with his band ''kinda
Elvis launched into several songs, with
the others quickly arranging themselves near the piano. An acoustic guitar was produced and it seems it was played by, amongst others, Charles Underwood, a writer for Sam's
publishing company, who probably played rhythm on some of the early songs of the session and also Smokey Joe Baugh, a Sun session artist who achieved minor
success; they might well also have added a few spontaneous backing vocals. It been suggested that Cliff Gleaves and Marilyn Evans might have tributes some backing vocals but this appears to be in the realm speculation; and unlikely in the case of Evans in view of her conservative musical tastes.
At this stage, by all accounts, the tapes were not rolling. Elvis sang several songs including ''Will
The Circle Be Unbroken'', ''You Belong To My Heart'' (a 1945 hit for Bing Crosby) and ''My Isle Of Golden Dreams''. According to several
reports, Johnny Cash sang on last two. Carl Perkins recalls ''That Old Time Religion'' being sung and it appears likely there were at least some others.
Jerry Lee Lewis, who had never met Elvis, was keen to make his acquaintance and get close to an artist
who had already achieved the kind of success he believed was sure to come his way soon. Unlike Carl, who appeared to hold back a little,
he was not at all overawed. He was certainly not impressed with Elvis' piano playing which, compared to his own, was fairly basic. He saw Elvis' surprise arrival as an opportunity to
show off his skills. If he could impress a major star perhaps it would help his career prospects. Some reports said he had been so anxious to impress
Elvis that at some point during the day he asked Sam to play an acetate of his new song ''Crazy Arms'' for him. It all smacked of the kind of arrogant self-confidence that was
to create so many problems in his personal and professional lives later on. It has been suggested that Jerry Lee played some songs, including ''There Are Strange
Things Happening Every Day'', before anything was recorded. This would certainly have been a fitting song for Jerry Lee, a rollicking piece of gospel music that is sometimes claimed as one of the first ever rock and roll songs. The spontaneous pleasure he clearly takes in making music with the others captures brilliantly the essential
mood of the afternoon.
It is hard to believe that the far
more reserved Elvis Presley was much taken with Jerry Lee on a personal level. Carl Perkins later said that for his own part he did not appreciate Jerry Lee's ''cocky brashness''. Elvis
invariably kept such conduct for his stage show. He was however impressed by his piano playing; he is reported to have said to reporter Robert Johnson,
''That boy can go. He has a different style, and the way he plays piano just gets inside of me''.
In his 1997 autobiography Johnny Cash said that he was already in the studio when Elvis arrived mid afternoon.
He said he was there because Carl had invited him to sit in on his session, and Sam Phillips also recalled Johnny listening to at left some of Carl's session. He and Carl were already good friends
at this stage, ''befriends for life'' as Johnny put it, and so there would be some logic to this, but most accounts assert that Johnny
arrived after Elvis, indeed that as the presence of Elvis which inspired Sam to call Johnny and bring the four of them together. Johnny also stated that he recalled singing on ''Blue Moon Of Kentucky'',
''The O1d Rugged Cross'' and ''Will The Circle Be Unbroken'', none of which were on any be recordings which have been released. He also said that
Elvis asked him to sing some Bill Monroe songs which Johnny said he did, because he knew ''the whole repertoire''. However these songs might well have been performed
prior to the rolling of the tapes, or indeed, perhaps there is yet another tape ''Holy Grail'', waiting to be discovered somewhere, though this appears to be highly
When exactly the recording started will never
be known. It seems that Sam revised something special, of historical importance even, was unfolding; famous musicians did get together from time to time this particular cohort, featuring as it did one of the biggest new in America, was out of the ordinary. Perhaps he sensed that they might never get the chance to play together
again; if so, he was right. For Sam it was personal and emotional. As he said later, ''It was like everything I had worked to achieve was there in that one little room''
At a consequence, according
to many reports, he did three things, tough the precise order is unclear. He called the leading Sun artist of the time, Johnny Cash, and asked him to come over to the studio to add his
weight to the proceedings. He also called local reporter Robert Johnson, the entertainment editor of the Memphis Press-Scimitar, a good friend, and
suggested that if he could get over to the studio quickly with a photographer there would be a story for him. In addition, at some point he told engineer Jack Clement to start
the tapes rolling.
microphones were positioned as they had been set up for the Perkins session. Jack Clement said that in preparation for making a recording session he ''moved the microphones around a bit'' but it
is very unlikely that the artists were properly mic'd up as they would be for a normal studio session. Informality was the order of
the day. It appears likely that by the time the tape machine was turned on the session had been going for a while, perhaps an hour, with a number of songs, or more likely parts of songs, having
Robert Johnson arrived soon after the call from
Sam; with him were photographer George Pierce and UPI stringer Leo Soroka. It seems likely that when they got to the studio the session was already underway, although it is not clear if the tapes were rolling at this point. When he wrote his regular column TV News And Views the next day in the Memphis Press-Scimitar Johnson described
the afternoon as ''bedlam'' and referred to the music as an ''old-fashioned barrel-house session with barber shop harmonies''. He made specific
reference to the four principals. ''Carl Perkins was in a recording session... Johnny Cash dropped in. Jerry Lee Lewis was there too; and then Elvis stopped by''. He went on to say, ''That quartet
could sell a million''. The photograph of the four singers taken at the piano which accompanied the article carried the title ''million
dollar quartet''. Robert Johnson thus came up with the name for the world's first ever rock and roll supergroup. The classic photograph of the quartet also featured Marilyn Evans sitting atop the
piano, but that part of the image was cropped for the newspaper article and has been omitted from most subsequent representations of
Clearly Johnny Cash was present for at least
part of the time Robert Johnson was there. It might be that the pair of them left around the same time, once the photographs had been taken. Johnson certainly never made
any reference to any grouping other than a quartet. In his article the next day he said that if Sam had been smart he would have recorded the session. Perhaps he arrived
when Johnny was one of the contributing singers but before the tapes were switched on. If they left at about the same time then this would all fit with the version of events that holds that Johnny did sing but was not recorded; and it would also fit with his comments about the session being recorded, he would have been unaware that Jack
started the tapes after he left.
Johnson's use of the phrase ''million dollar quartet'' was not original journalese. The term had been used to describe quartets of talented artists by the press, certainly
in America, since the twenties. A recent example, in July 1956, was a photograph of film stars Betty Grable, Jane Russell, Dorothy Lamour and Marilyn Maxwell which appeared in the ''Syracuse Herald American''. The term had also been in a fiscal sense, to describe a group of tax measures aimed at raising significant amounts of money.
The photographs confirm that Johnny Cash was there and Johnson's
comments raise a strong presumption that he sang. However, despite extensive expert analysis, no trace of Johnny Cash's voice has ever been found
on the tapes of the session which were subsequence released on various bootlegs and official LPs and CDs. Johnny Cash claimed in his 1997 autobiography that he was ''the first to arrive and the
last to leave'' but there is virtually no support for this view elsewhere. Carl Perkins, interviewed in 1981, said the group should have
been called the ''Million Dollar Trio'' because Johnny just came in for the photographs and possibly to get some money, and then left to go shopping with his wife, Vivian. One report claimed that
he left because he had to go and collect Vivian from work but this is unlikely since she had two young children and would almost certainly
not have gone to work at that time. Yet another report claimed that Vivian had accompanied Johnny to the studio with Rosanne, the first of their four daughters. Whatever the truth, none of this
precludes the possibility, indeed the likelihood, that Johnny did sing for a while before the photographs were taken and the tapes switched on. Yet
it is strange that Carl, who said he recalled the day ''vividly'', should be certain that Johnny did not sing at all.
In his 1997 autobiography Johnny claims to remember the point at which Jerry Lee took over on the piano. He was bowled over by his playing which he had not heard before. Johnny went on to say that Jerry Lee launched into ''Vacation In Heaven'' but this song does not appear on
the recordings, so if it happened this must have been before the tapes were switched on. Johnny also said that nobody ever wants to follow Jerry Lee Lewis and that Elvis headed of when he started playing and that at this point he (Johnny) went next door to Miss Taylor's restaurant for coffee. However, after Jerry Lee finished playing
several song, at the end of the recordings, he and Elvis can clearly be heard saying goodbye to each other when Elvis does finally leave. Anyway
at this stage of things it is hard to believe that a success story like Elvis Presley would have been in the slightest bothered by following an unknown like Jerry Lee in this kind of casual get-together.
Apart from the difference in their commercial profiles it simply was not that kind of session.
In the sleeve notes to the 1981 album Live'', Johnny paints a rather flowery picture of the session which does not appear to bear much resemblance to reality. ''New on the scene, Jerry Lee waited politely until the singing came to a casual halt. When Elvis stood up, Jerry Lee said 'Let me at that
piano'. . . when Jerry Lee began, he led, and Carl, Elvis and I joined in whenever the key was right''. In reality Jerry Lee can be heard to
make robust contributions to most of the recorded material. In addition, the stage of the proceedings that Johnny appears to be referring to, when Jerry Lee takes over on the piano, is part of the
available recording and there is no trace of Johnny's voice. This tends to refute his assertion that everybody, including him, sang along
with Jerry Lee. In fact once Jerry Lee took over it was to all intents and purposes a solo performance, again the available evidence runs counter to Johnny's version of a key aspect of events.
Aware of numerous assertions that he was not at the session at
all, or at least had not been present when the session was being recorded, Johnny remained adamant that he had indeed been a key participant. Having claimed that he had been there throughout, he went on to offer an explanation as to why his voice could not be heard on the recordings. Elvis was of course the undisputed star of the proceedings
and so events revolved around him. Some referred to him as the leader. It followed therefore, Johnny explained, that songs were played
in a key to suit him. This meant that Johnny found himself singing an unaccustomed high tenor, ''Bill Monroe's part'', as he described it, which made him less audible. He also said that he was furthest
away from the microphone, a point which it would be impossible to provide evidence on now. However Jack Clement recently indicated that
there were several microphones which would make it very difficult to explain how no trace of Johnny's voice has ever been identified if he had been present throughout.
Johnny's explanation really does not stand up to much scrutiny. Whichever way he sang,
Johnny had a powerful voice. Leading experts have not been able to detect even one minute trace of it despite years of work. However,
the microphone was able to pick up innumerable snatches of conversation going on in the studio which presumably took place further from Johnny's position which would, it is surely safe to assume,
have been close to the other artists, who picked up loud and clear. Also, Johnny had already built up a large repertoire of his own songs, surely
he would have performed at least one or two of them? There are none of his songs on the recordings that have surfaced and no reference to any of his songs having been performed at
Johnny Cash spent much of the sixties in a drug induced haze; he almost succeeded in joining the small club of great artists who did not live past their twenties. Interest in the tapes
only took of in the seventies, especially in the wake of Elvis Presley's death. Johnny's autobiography was written in the mid nineties, around
40 years after the events in Memphis, and so it appears that his robust assertions are a case of false memory syndrome, unless of course there is another tape which says otherwise lurking in a vault
somewhere. However in the unlikely event that this was true, it could not support Johnny's claim that he was present and singing throughout
the whole session. One of the world's leading experts on Elvis Presley, Ernst Jorgensen, who played a major role in bringing the recordings to public attention, does not think this is at all probable.
He is on record as saying that in his opinion all the tapes of the session have been recovered. Referring to the 2006 CD of the session he said,
Everything that was recorded that day is on the Complete Million Dollar Quartet CD. . . when you play the three tapes (sequentially), everything fits together perfectly. You can hear
Elvis come in on tape one and leave at the end of tape three. It's a myth that there is anything else out there (from those sessions). Cash must
have remembered incorrectly''. It might well be that Cash sang on some songs before the tapes started rolling but it really does seem to be clearly established that he did not
contribute to what took place after the tapes started rolling.
Some further evidence on the subject comes from comments by some of the people present which were recorded. At one point a female voice with a southern drawl (quite
possibly that of Marion Keisker) can clearly be heard to ask if this ''Rover Boys Trio'' can sing ''Farther Along''. This leads to a strong presumption that a third of the way into the recording, only three artists were present. A little earlier in the tape a gravelly voice, possibly that of Smokey Joe Baugh, is heard to say ''You oughta
get up a quartet''. This could be taken to mean that there are four people performing who are so good that they should take their quartet on the road or tum professional. On the other hand, and on balance this appears more likely, it could also be read as meaning that there were three people singing who would sound better with a fourth
member. During one song, ''On The Jericho Road'', Elvis, faced with the need for some low notes, says, ''Take young Johnny Cash to do
this one''. Just to muddy the waters, in the course of the final track, ''Elvis Says Goodbye'', a voice be heard saying ''Johnny, I'll see you later''. Does this indicate that in fact Johnny was
there right up until the end of the session? Was there somebody else called Johnny present at the studio that day?
In a later interview engineer Jack Clement gave his own version of events which throws some further light on events without necessarily clarifying them. ''Sam had been running the board for the Carl Perkins session, but he left after the photos were taken, went to Mrs Taylor's
restaurant next door, so I sat at the board in the control room and and up a couple of knobs, and I could hear them all gossiping and jamming in there. I remember standing up and saying, ''I'd be remiss didn't record this', so I stuck a tape on, moved a few mics around that were already on stands in the studio, put them in front of people,
and captured everything for the next hour-and-a-half to two hours. We had 30-minute tapes, and every time I'd get close to the end I would put
another one on and just let it roll''. This account varies from Sam's. He said that he gave the order to Jack to roll the tapes even though nobody was properly mic'd up. Jack's account seems to
imply that he arranged the microphones quite near to the various singers, which in turn contradicts Johnny's assertion that he was quite
far from a microphone.
Sam Phillips, so used to exhorting
his artists to give of their best during lengthy spells in the studio, adopted a different role altogether for the Million Dollar Quartet session. He was the facilitator and host an
impromptu party whose guest of honour was a rising star like no other. Far from directing the music he said later that everything ''extemporaneous''.
There was no set list, no pre-planning, no attempt to tease out a particular sound or create a product which have commercial appeal. It was a case of somebody just saying,
''Do you know that song''? Somebody else would say ''What key is it in''? and off they went. The participants simply played music that came naturally to them,
the stuff-that was in their hearts. They played for the love of it and on the evidence of these recordings would have continued to play their music whether or not they
had achieved commercial success.
and Sun Records archivist Colin Escott said of Elvis, ''Presley let his true musical soul come up for air''. Carl Perkins said Elvis sounded as he had done in the early Sun days, uninhibited and
joyful, and that it was infectious. Carl also pointed out that Elvis sounded a little ''keener'' and higher explaining that this might have
been because Sun used fairly cheap equipment which did not allow for much ''bottom ended''. Once Elvis went to RCA it was noticeable that he oversang a lot of the time; that is, he exaggerated a
lot of his vocal mannerisms, the ones that his producers had worked out sent the girls wild. There was no need for any such over-egging
of the pudding for such a relaxed and informal musical jaunt. What's more, the sound they achieved had something of the raw purity and immediacy associated with the best of the Sun sound. This was
partly due to the basic equipment deployed, an economic necessity, but also the fact that the musicians were all together in a small space producing
their music simultaneously, interacting with one another spontaneously. There were moments when it had the feel of a live gig in a small club. It was a million miles
away from the clinical precision of multi-tracking, mastering and overdubs associated with large studios.
It was not just Elvis who relished the opportunity for the kind of carefree fun afforded by the session. All four were young
men under enormous pressure to perform to the very best of their ability on a near daily basis, live and in the studio, and to produce commercial returns in the fastest possible time. On December
4, 1956 in Memphis they could turn the clock back and forget all that for a brief time; they could do what they used to do, and what
countless thousands people have done for years, hook up with some friends to make it together; a truly timeless human pursuit.
Sam could not pass up the opportunity to propose a little advantageous business following Elvis' unexpected
appearance at the studio. He reminded him of the song ''When It Rains, It Really Pours', which he had recorded at Sun just before his departure for RCA. Sam's
publishing company owned the rights to the song would naturally be delighted if Elvis recorded it. The initiative worked. Elvis cut it the following year although RCA did not actually release it until 1965.
Elvis in particular it must surely have been a delight to play tic he loved without pressure from RCA producers anxious to commercial product into the shops as quickly as possible. He had experienced
the intense pressure of having to perform to order front of cameras for his first Hollywood movie, ''Love Me Me Tender'', which had
been released in November. Perhaps he toyed with the idea of getting back to the more carefree days of Sun, but things had moved on too far and he was now a hugely powerful brand on
unstoppable upward trajectory. It can only be assumed that Tom Parker was unaware of the session; if he had received any kind of advance warning
he would either have prevented it happening or ensured that contract were signed, fees paid, film crews booked, order to ensure that the maximum commercial advantage was
squeezed out of the day. In the modern era such a session would be unthinkable, as soon as any arrangement is made to lay down be creative work by a group of artists,
the lawyers, consultants, accountants and managers would be brought in to advise on the best ; to exploit the event and protect the interests of their clients. It could be said that Tom Parker was merely a sign of thine to come.
It was quite sad really; in retrospect it is painfully obvious that Elvis was an ingenue, not really in charge of his own destiny. This was cue to a greater or lesser
extent for all of them. Despite the easygoing atmosphere on this one afternoon, their careers and by implication their lives were very much at the mercy of managers,
agents and producers. What's more, there were no contracts with sophisticated clauses designed to protect their financial interests, let alone their personal welfare,
in fair and transparent ways. Indeed, all would have reason to feel cheated financially in the course of their careers, not least by the host of the day's proceeding,
In the course
of the afternoon the small studio premises, about the size of a small neighborhood grocery store, must have been quite crowded at times. It is clear from the recordings that many people came and
went, the numbers doubtless enhanced by the presence of Elvis. It is likely that the door between the reception area and the studio itself was left
open to enable people to move around. As part of the general ebb and flow, doors can be heard opening and closing from time to time with visitors apparently oblivious to the
remarkable music that was being laid down a few feet away from them. At one point the name ''Charlie''' is mentioned, this could well have been Charlie Feather,
another Sun artist who achieved modest success.
band, brothers Jay and Clayton and drummer WS 'Fluke' Holland, were still there when the tapes started rolling but, like others, drifted away in the course of the afternoon. Jerry Lee's cousin,
J..W Brown, with whom Jerry Lee was staying, might have popped in along with his wife, Lois. Later on, amongst the tantalizing cocktail-party
noise, the voice of a woman is suddenly clearly audible; she requests an autograph for a young relative.
Once the tapes were rolling the group (a trio so far as the recorded evidence is concerned) continued with the spontaneous session and played a series of songs which covered a remarkably wide range of musical styles emanating from the latter part of the previous century right up to current fifties
pop charts. It was all there: folks bluegrass, country, rhythm and blues, gospel, Christmas songs, jazz and pop; a substantial portion of the
genome of popular music that has continued develop ever since.
was the music the quartet had absorbed as they grew up. For cost part it was Elvis who was in charge of proceedings. He comes over as excited, a little bit anxious but very keen to be the centre
of attention; he appeared able to overcome his natural shyness because he was so sure of his talent and so keen to sing. Latterly, as
becomes less involved, Jerry Lee moves centre stage. Like the young upstart he was, he relished the chance to lay out his musical wares in the presence of established greatness. He was unburdened
by any self doubt. Carl Perkins on the other hand, whilst contributing much to the session, seemed to hold back a little.
All participants sound relaxed. caught up in the moment and having fun. There
was an appealing boyish excitement about the way they compared notes on songs and hit upon the next one to play. They could have been
teenagers talking about cars or girls. One of the questions surrounding the session which has never been definitively answered is whether they knew they were being recorded. On one view of it logic
dictates that they did know; this is a view to which expert Colin Escott, on balance, subscribes. They were in a studio which had microphones
set up for Carl's session earlier in the day. Johnny Cash talked about the positioning of one microphone when explaing the faintness of his vocal contribution. Jack Clement has stated that he
moved the microphones in anticipation of recording what had already started to happen.
On the other hand, in his article next day, reporter Robert Johnson said that if Sam had been ''on his toes'' he would have
recorded the session; however it is quite possible this was because he left before the tapes rolled. The presence of microphones in a studio was hardly unusual. There was a lot of general hubbub
and it might be that the singers saw them but did not realise or think that they would be activated. The process of starting the recording
would have taken place in the control room, away from the participants. As professional artists aware of the value of magnetic tape, they might well have assumed that tapes would only roll when
the musicians were geared up to produce a really good version of a song in the right conditions - ice. not with a party going on all
Interviewed in 1978, Carl Perkins indicated
that he was only vaguely aware that the session had been recorded. He was at Sun the next day and said, ''Sam played a few snatches'' but it was only very recently
(1978) that he became aware that extensive tapes of the session existed. Confusingly, although Johnny Cash talked about the positioning of the microphone, he is also
on record saying that he was not aware the session was being taped. As far as can be established, neither Elvis nor Jerry Lee have ever commented publicly on the matter.
It might well be that
there is a simple answer; the boys were so caught up in the session that regardless of whether they had been told the tapes were rolling they simply forgot. Given the unguarded way in which
they talked to each other, sometimes about other artists, it is hard to believe that they thought they were being recorded as they galloped through
the songs. Elvis in particular gave every impression of being totally uninhibited. This was in great contrast to his manner when interviewed on radio or television; then he was
often hesitant, keen to avoid criticism or controversy, giving every impression of worrying that he might be saying the wrong thing, quite guarded.
This was particularly true when he suffered a strong backlash from several conservative quarters; interviewers at this time could be quite hostile.
A further possibility is that they were aware that they were being recorded but never thought for a moment that the ones would ever get a public airing, so that there was
no need for any kind of discretion on their part.
Towards the end of the recordings Elvis drops out, presumably to talk to Sam and others, possibly in the control room, and make preparations for his and Marilyn's departure.
At this point Jerry Lee takes the opportunity to move centre stage. To all intents and purposes the latter part of the recordings is a solo performance
by the Killer starting with a virtuoso rendition of his debut Sun single, ''Crazy Arms''. Prior to this Elvis had said, by way of complimenting Jerry Lee's playing, that the wrong person was at
the piano. Without hesitation Jerry Lee said this is what he had been saying all along and Elvis to ''scoot over''. He eventually stopped
playing around the time Elvis was leaving and it was time for goodbyes to be exchanged all round.
Towards the end of the recording Elvis can be heard to say, ''That's why I hate to get started in these jam sessions, I'm always the last one to leave''. Goodbyes are exchanged along with firm expressions of desire to do it all again soon; it was not to be. A few days after the session Sam sent
a press release to the disc jockeys on the Sun mailing list. He quoted the feature written by Robert Johnson in the Press-Scimitar and also included
a photograph of the quartet. At the bottom, in his own handwriting, he added:
''Our Only Regret. That each and every one of you wonderful disc jockeys who are responsible for these boys being among the best known and liked in show business could not be there too!
We thought however that you might like to read first hand about our little shindig, it was a dilly! Sincerely grateful, Sam Phillips''.
Jack Clement said that he would arrange to send acetates of the session to the participants but he later told an
interviewer that he had never got round to it.
It seems the session kicked off around the middle/late afternoon with Elvis' arrival. When did it all come to an end? Carl Perkins recalled Elvis leaving around eight
in the evening; given that he was the star attraction his arrival and departure times pretty much define the parameter of the Million Dollar Quartet session. Of those five hours less than half were actually recorded and even less than that is available on publicly released recordings.
The Million Dollar Quartet recording say more about the origins of popular music than a million words
ever could. Given the backgrounds of the participants the session also provided a glimpse of some of the key artists who represented
the rise of the south as an important musical force. Up until the mid-fifties most popular music that was successful in national terms came from the north, in particular from New York. The
phenomenal success of the quartet in the years that followed meant that the big guns who had ruled the roost for so long were faced with the reality
that new forces were massing and that a fiery wind of change was blowing up in their direction to shake up their more genteel world.
Away from the wider picture and on a more personal note, Sam sensed the significance of the session for the
individuals involved. He said later, ''I think this little chance meeting meant an awful lot to all those people, not because one was bigger
than another, it was kinds like coming from the same womb''.