Sixty years ago, on December 4, 1956, four musicians gathered around a piano in a recording studio to jam... and the rest is history.
There have been many jam sessions over the years, in plenty of recording studios, with any number of musicians - but this one is special. On a Tuesday afternoon, Elvis Presley, his date, Marilyn Evans and his friend Cliff Gleaves, were driving on Union Avenue in Memphis and spotted several Cadillacs sitting outside Sun Studio. Elvis was, by now, an RCA artist, but he couldn't resist stopping by his former home studio to see who was recording that day.
Inside was none other than Carl Perkins, who was working on a few tunes with his brothers, Jay and Clayton, and a young piano player who was new on the scene - Jerry Lee Lewis. Jerry Lee's career was just starting at Sun, and he was excited to meet Elvis.
At some point in the session, Sun's biggest star, Johnny Cash, joined in on the fun. Some reports have him there for the entire session, while others say he was there just for the iconic photo. Either way, the four young musical legends - Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash - were at Sun Studio on December 4, and were, for at least a little while, the Million Dollar Quartet.
Sam Phillips was there, too, and he made sure that engineer Jack Clement had hit the record button on the session. He also called Bob Johnson, a reporter for the Memphis Press-Scimitar, to snap a photo of what he already knew was a historic moment. "The quartet could sell a million," Bob said in his story, which featured the headline, "Million Dollar Quartet."
The guys played a mix of their favorite country and gospel numbers. The tunes they played that day include "When the Saints Go Marching In," "Peace in the Valley," "That's When Your Heartaches Begin," "Down by the Riverside," "You're the Only Star in My Blue Heaven" and "Don't Be Cruel." Elvis sang pieces of "Don't Be Cruel" as he told the guys about how impressed he was by a vocal group, Billy Ward and His Dominoes, who performed the song at their concerts in Las Vegas. The group's singer that Elvis talks about during the session was Jackie Wilson.
There were plenty of candid moments like that during the session. When Elvis moved so Jerry Lee could take over at the piano, Elvis said, "The wrong man's been sitting here at this piano," to which Jerry Lee replied, "Well, I been wanting to tell you that all along."
Session players drifted in and out of the session, and after Jerry Lee showed off on a few terrific numbers, the guys finally called it quits after more than an hour of music. Elvis thanked everyone for the session, told Jerry Lee he that it was good to have met him and invited him out to his home.
For Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, it was a casual, fun afternoon full of music and laughter, but it was also one of the most important moments in music history. As Sam Phillips said, "I think this chance meeting meant an awful lot to all those people, not because one was bigger than another, it was kind of like coming from the same womb."
Watch Elvis' Million Dollar Quartet date, Marilyn Riehl Evans, recall that day, how she met Elvis in Las Vegas, what it was like to meet Elvis' parents and much more in this month's episode of our web series, Gates of Graceland. And remember, if you want to dive deep into Elvis' career, make the ultimate rock 'n' roll pilgrimage to Graceland. Plan your trip now!