The NPO Radio 5 program appears in the Elvis’ Encyclopedia section Delicious lunch with Daniel Dekker in The King’s archives. Elvis expert Charley Moolhuizen tells background stories of special, sometimes unknown, songs and shares remarkable facts about Elvis. This time the story behind: the Million Dollar Quartet.
2 years after Elvis first recorded music professionally in the Sun Studio, 1956 was the year of his big breakthrough. He made history by reaching the American Billboard charts that year with no fewer than 17 different songs, 3 of which even reached number 1.
He seems to be everywhere: on radio and television, in the cinemas and not to mention live on stage. After Elvis gives his last concert for the time being on November 25, he finally has time to recover from all the hectic pace. The King mainly spends that period in and around his hometown of Memphis.
On Tuesday afternoon, December 4, Elvis decides to visit the Sun Studio with his girlfriend Marilyn Evans, a dancer he met earlier in Las Vegas. Unannounced, he drives her towards Union Avenue, to the studio where it all started.
When he walks into the modest building, it turns out that a Carl Perkins recording session is going on in the studio. Perkins has the hit early in the year Blue Suede Shoes written and released, which means his breakthrough. The relatively unknown artist Jerry Lee Lewis is also present. He sits behind the piano as a session musician, to support Perkins during the recordings.
Sam Phillips is also present, the owner of the Sun Studio and the associated record label. He is also mainly known as the discoverer of the Elvis Presley phenomenon. When Elvis takes a seat at the piano, a jam session spontaneously arises. The 3 men start singing country and gospel songs that they remember from their childhood. They also try out a few recently released hits. They enjoy themselves as they would at home.
The atmosphere in the studio is exactly what Elvis likes to create during his own recording sessions. The ease with which he shares the spotlight with the other artists indicates that Elvis is having a great time.
Million Dollar Quartet
At some point, Sun artist Johnny Cash also arrives at the studio. To record this historic event, Phillips arranges for someone from the local newspaper to come by quickly. The reporter is smart enough to also bring a photographer.
The next day an article appears in the newspaper about the musical event in Memphis. The headline above the photo reads “Million Dollar Quartet”. It is the now famous photo of Presley sitting at the piano, surrounded by his colleagues Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. It is thanks to technician ‘cowboy’ Jack Clement that most of the legendary session was recorded. Without him it would have been just a photo and short text.
It was not until the early 1980s that some of the recordings appeared on record for the first time. More of the session will be released in 2006, to mark the session’s 50th anniversary. Three tapes of the Million Dollar Quartet have been found. On the first one you hear Elvis arriving, and on the last one you hear him leaving. Interesting detail: Johnny Cash cannot be heard on any of the 3 tapes. Is there a 4th tape?
A few more facts:
- When the jam session starts, Jack Clement decides to record it. He does this without anyone knowing about it.
- Because almost no one knows that the session was recorded, the recordings then go into the archives unnoticed. They remain there untouched for decades.
- In the original photo of the Million Dollar Quartet, Marilyn Evans sits on the end of the piano. She is not visible on the later officially released album cover.
- In 2007, a musical about the events surrounding the legendary jam session was released.
Listen to the program Delicious lunch with Daniel Dekker from 12:00 to 14:00 on NPO Radio 5.
(Photo: Various releases from the Million Dollar session © Charley Moolhuizen.)