One of the most frequently asked questions about the smash hit Broadway musical Million Dollar Quartet, which depicts a studio recording session with Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley, is “Did that really happen?”
The answer is a definitive yes.
On December 4, 1956, Carl Perkins (in a bit of a funk post “Blues Suede Shoes”) booked a recording session with producer Sam Phillips at Sun Studios. Perkins and his band, along with Jerry Lee Lewis, laid down some songs, including what would become one of the best-known Perkins songs, “Matchbox.”
While many of the details of the day’s events are still in dispute, this much is known–Perkins and Lewis were joined by Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash and held an impromptu jam session. A reporter in attendance later wrote, “This quartet could sell a million.” Although this was the only performance of all four legends-to-be together, they were dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet.
The men played hymns like “Blessed Jesus (Hold My Hand),” “Peace in the Valley,” and “Down by the Riverside” while Phillips rolled tape. They also played a number of country classics, particularly a handful of songs by Bill Monroe whose “Blue Moon of Kentucky” had already appeared on the b-side of Presley’s first single in 1954. The band also tackled some hits of the day, like Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and Pat Boone’s “Don’t Forbid Me.”
It was a reunion for Cash, Perkins, and Presley, who had toured the South together in 1955. Lewis was still a star on the rise, but he quickly bonded with Presley over their shared knowledge of spirituals. The presence of Cash is still debated by rock writers and historians, as he cannot be heard on the recordings. Some say he came only for a short time and quickly left. For his part, however, Cash claimed in his autobiography that he was actually the first one there, and attributes his relative absence on the recordings to the fact that he was singing in a higher register than usual in order to better mesh with Presley.
Regardless, the session recordings–later released in a series of albums beginning in 1981–show all of the men, particularly Presley, at ease with the music and enjoying themselves.
Million Dollar Quartet features a treasure trove of the greatest rock, rockabilly, gospel, R&B, and country standards of the 1950s, including “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Fever,” Sixteen Tons,” “Who do You Love?,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” and “Whole Lotta’ Shakin’ Goin’ On.” The session retains its historical significance, not only as a landmark event in the dawning of rock ‘n’ roll, but as a significant milestone in the ever-changing world of 20th century popular culture and mass media.
Million Dollar Quartet plays the Palace Theatre February 5-10. Tickets start at $28 at the CAPA Ticket Center (39 E. State St.), all Ticketmaster outlets, and www.ticketmaster.com. To purchase tickets by phone, please call (614) 469-0939 or (800) 745-3000. www.capa.com.
GCAC Presents is a bi-weekly column brought to you by the Greater Columbus Arts Council – supporting art and advancing culture in Columbus – in partnership with the Columbus Arts Marketing Association, a professional development and networking association of arts marketers. Each column will be written by a different local arts organization to give you an insiders look at the arts in Columbus.