December 4, 1956, Sun Studios, Memphis, Tennessee. For four young men whose careers would ultimately ascend into nosebleed-level super-stardom, it was still just all about the music.
That afternoon, studio owner and record producer Sam Phillips was holding a recording session with 22-year-old singer-songwriter Carl Perkins. The two had enjoyed a sizable hit for the Sun label with Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes," and it was time to record new material. Phillips had invited his newest artist, a then-unknown 21-year-old hotshot piano player named Jerry Lee Lewis, to join the session, playing alongside Perkins' backing band. Sun artist Johnny Cash, a 22-year-old singer-songwriter and guitarist who'd already enjoyed a handful of hits on Sun (including "I Walk the Line"), had arrived at the studio early in the day, wanting to listen in on Perkins' session. By chance, early that afternoon, one of Phillips' earlier discoveries — a singer whose contract he'd only half-willingly signed over to RCA for an unprecedented $40k — stopped by to visit, his then-girlfriend, dancer Marilyn Evans, in tow. The 21-year-old Elvis Presley had made his first album at Sun only three years earlier.
The visit really was impromptu. The official Graceland blog reports that, driving by, Elvis had "spotted several Cadillacs sitting outside Sun Studio," and he "couldn't resist stopping by his former home studio to see who was recording that day." After chatting with Phillips and listening to the playback of the session, Elvis joined the others in the studio, talking music. But most musicians would rather play music than talk about it, so Elvis sat down at the piano.
Everyone — Elvis, Jerry Lee, Johnny, Carl, and the session players — started messing around, just having fun swapping songs and playing the music they loved. At some point, sound engineer Jack Clement, who'd recorded Perkins' session that day, decided to hit the record button. While we can't know how many songs he may have missed, the resulting recording includes 46 songs intermingled with stories, jokes, and conversations between the participants. You hear doors squeaking and slamming, hands clapping and snapping, background chatter, things being dropped, people going in and out. It's loose, goofy, joyous, and occasionally clumsy. Its only perfection is in its complete lack of it.
Since it was just before Christmas, instrumental versions of "Jingle Bells" and "White Christmas" made early appearances in the real-time recording. Soon Elvis began leading the crew in some of his songs, including "Love Me Tender" and three versions of "Don't Be Cruel." They later got into serious(ly fun) gospel/spiritual territory and dove deeply into country and bluegrass classics from Bill Monroe, Ernest Tubb, and others.
Elvis sang most of the leads. As every moment of the recording makes clear, he was in a fantastic mood that day, at home with his talent and at home in the world. Eventually, Elvis let Jerry Lee take over on piano, saying, "The wrong man's been sitting here at this piano." (The never-at-loss-for-confidence Jerry Lee replied, "Well, I been wanting to tell you that all along.") Perkins was content to play guitar and sing background vocals, only taking the lead once, on "Keeper of the Key." Johnny's voice isn't obvious in the recording, but he later explained that he was furthest from the microphone and singing in a higher register to stay in key with Elvis. Jerry Lee took the lead on five numbers right at the end, but when you hear Elvis say goodbye, the tape ends.
The boys hardly ever played the full version of a song; if the momentum took them elsewhere, they followed it. They were just messing around, having fun with harmonies, trying on songs, phrasings, and personalities and making fun of themselves. Egos pushed aside, they played, listened, harmonized, and laughed. It all feels effortless. They weren't worried about polish or appearances. They were just doing what they loved, with people who loved it just as much as they did.
As a man who never fully shook off his need to impress, Elvis was probably showing off a little for his girlfriend, who has the privilege of being cropped out of most versions of the photos taken of the famous foursome that day. Indeed, Sam Phillips knew a good publicity opportunity when he saw one. Mid-session, he called the local paper to come down, and an uncropped photo was printed in the Memphis Press-Scimitar the following day. That was when they earned their moniker, too: the photo appeared with the caption "Million Dollar Quartet."
Anyway. It's true that a beautiful girl atop the piano may have been one reason the boys stayed motivated for more than 46 songs. But mostly they were just having fun, and excited about having this unexpected and semi-magical chance to play and sing together. Though they'd all come from nowhere — every one of them from a poor family and a disadvantaged pedigree — they all had an idea they were getting somewhere. But, for the space of an afternoon, plans and expectations receded. The only thing that mattered was where they were right then.
It's impossible to listen to their rendition of, say, "When the Saints Go Marching In" without smiling at their barefaced joy. As Press-Scimitar Staff Writer Robert Johnson explained it, "I never had a better time than yesterday afternoon when I dropped in at Sam Phillips' Sun Record bedlam... It was what you might call a barrel-house of fun... I never saw [Elvis] more likable than he was just fooling around with these other fellows who have the same interests he does." (Check out the link above for more photos from that famous afternoon.)
Maybe you remember how their stories ended. Elvis fell victim to pills, high cholesterol, infidelity, and an inability to get out of the movie contract that made him rich while keeping him miserable. Johnny got hooked on amphetamines and drank heavily for years. He fought hard to stay sober following his marriage to June Carter, but he relapsed several times. He eventually died of complications from diabetes further complicated by a broken heart from having lost June. Carl also suffered from chronic alcoholism compounded by the tragic death of his brother. He and Johnny supported each other in trying to stay sober, but he eventually died from throat cancer, a condition which had also made it hard for him to sing. Finally, as rock and roll's "first great wild man," Jerry Lee was no stranger to drugs and alcohol. Despite bleeding ulcers, some fairly severe problems with the IRS, seven marriages — including a highly controversial third marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, Myra, which derailed his career for a spell — and the untimely deaths of two of his sons and two of his wives, he's the only member of the Million Dollar Quartet still kicking.
When their stories are told, the sensationalism of all the tragedy, scandal, drugs, drinking, and bounteous amounts of women tends to take center stage. So I offer up this image of the foursome as a moment when none of that mattered — when they were, more than anything else, musicians in love with making the music they knew they'd been born to play. This improbable jam session on a December afternoon in 1956 happened before anything else had a chance to get in the way.
Really, the music IS what matters in their stories, no matter what the TV movies and torrid headlines would have you think. Their collective impact on the future of music is hard to overstate. Paul McCartney said that "if there were no Carl Perkins, there would be no Beatles." His bandmate, John Lennon, pointed to a different member of the Million Dollar Quartet, saying, "Nothing really affected me until I heard Elvis. If there hadn't been Elvis, there wouldn't have been the Beatles." Bob Dylan said of Johnny, "[He] was and is the North Star; you could guide your ship by him — the greatest of the greats then and now." Elton John credits Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire" as "the first time I heard someone beat the shit out of a piano," an experience that was "astonishing" to him and which helped him know what kind of performer he wanted to be.
So, next time you're feeling down, spin up a little MDQ. At its core, music is about a feeling, and the feeling of that magical afternoon is that of indestructible and immortal joy. It really is impossible not to smile at these momentarily goofy, happy young men who were doomed to be famous while destined for musical greatness.