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On this date in musical history: Dec 4th, 1956

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  • On this date in musical history: Dec 4th, 1956

    The Million Dollar Quartet is the name given to recordings made on Tuesday December 4, 1956 in the Sun Record Studios in Memphis, Tennessee. The recordings were of an impromptu jam session between Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. The jam session seems to have happened by pure chance. Perkins, who by this time had already met success with “Blue Suede Shoes,” had come into the studios that day, accompanied by his brothers Clayton and Jay and by drummer W.S. Holland, their aim being to cut some new material, including a revamped version of an old blues song, “Matchbox.” Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records, who wished to try to fatten this sparse rockabilly instrumentation, had brought in his latest acquisition, singer and piano man extraordinaire, Jerry Lee Lewis, still unknown outside Memphis, to play the piano on the Perkins session.

    Sometime in the early afternoon, Elvis Presley, a former Sun artist himself, but now at RCA, dropped in to pay a casual visit accompanied by a girlfriend, Marilyn Evans. He was, at the time, the biggest name in show business, having hit the top of the singles charts five times, and topping the album charts twice in the preceding 12 month period. Less than four months earlier, he had appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, pulling an unheard-of 83% of the television audience, which was estimated at 55 million, the largest in history, up to that time. After chatting with Philips in the control room, Presley listened to the playback of the Perkins’ session, which he pronounced to be good. Then he went into the studio and some time later the jam session began. Phillips left the tapes running in order to “capture the moment” as a souvenir and for posterity. At some point during the session, Sun artist Johnny Cash, who had also enjoyed a few hits on the country charts, popped in (Cash noted in his autobiography Cash that it was he who was the first to arrive at Sun Studio that day). As Jerry Lee pounded away on the piano, Elvis and his girlfriend at some point slipped out. Cash claims in Cash that “no one wanted to follow Jerry Lee, not even Elvis”
    The following day, an article, written by Memphis newspaperman Bob Johnson about the session, was published in the Memphis Press-Scimitar under the title, “Million Dollar Quartet.” The article contained the now well known photograph of Elvis Presley seated at the piano surrounded by Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Elvis first auditioned for Phillips in 1954. But it was not until Elvis sang That’s Alright (Mama) that Phillips was impressed. In less than a year, facing financial troubles, Phillips sold Elvis’ contract to RCA Records for $35,000. But, as Phillips says in the play, don’t feel bad for him. He took that money and invested it well, from releasing Sun’s first big hit, Carl Perkins’ Blue Suede Shows to investing in a small hotel chain that became Holiday Inn. Never has $35,000 gone so far!When Elvis came back to visit Sun on that faithful day in 1956, he was then famous and missed the mentoring knowledge he’d gotten in the early days from Phillips. He wanted Phillips, who had hooked him up with Scotty Moore, his lead guitarist and bassist Bill Black, to come produce him at RCA. Phillips would have none of it. He stayed with Sun and continued discovering artists that other companies rejected.
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  • #2
    Thanks for posting this! To have been a fly on the wall.......
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