The Million Dollar Quartet: What really happened in 1956

From left, “Million Dollar Quartet” members Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash at Sun Records’ studio in Memphis in 1956.

With the jukebox musical “Million Dollar Quartet” opening tonight at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, it seemed like a good time to take a close look at what really happened on the day that inspired the play: Dec. 4, 1956.

Carl Perkins, who had had a big hit for the Memphis-based record label Sun that year with “Blue Suede Shoes,” had a recording session booked at Sun’s studio. Jerry Lee Lewis, not yet a star in his own right, had been hired to play piano. Elvis Presley — Sun’s breakthrough artist, who had already moved to the larger RCA Victor label, earlier that year — stopped by. So, by chance, did Johnny Cash, who wrote, in his 1997 autobiography “Cash,” that he wanted to listen to the Perkins session. (Cash had had a Top 20 pop, No. 1 country hit for Sun earlier that year, “I Walk the Line.”)

Sun owner Sam Phillips contacted the Memphis Press-Scimitar, to alert them to the unexpected gathering. The paper sent a reporter and photographer, and the story ran the next day with the famous photo, above. The phrase “Million Dollar Quartet” was used in the photo caption.

They jammed together for a while — not to generate an actual recording, but just to have some fun — playing gospel standards, bluegrass songs and hits of the day, including Presley’s “Love Me Tender” and “Don’t Be Cruel” and Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.” Members of Perkins band and other musicians who happened to be there that day chipped in as well.

Cash never sang lead and, for many years, it was assumed that he is not on the tape, presumably having left the studio before it started rolling. However, he wrote in his biography that “contrary to what some people have written, my voice is on the tape. It’s not obvious, because I was farthest away from the mic and I was singing a lot higher than I usually did in order to stay in key with Elvis, but I guarantee you, I’m there.”

The “Million Dollar Quartet” musical — which debuted in Florida in 2006 and was on Broadway in 2010 and 2011 — is not an attempt to realistically portray what happened in 1956, though three of its 23 songs were played at the original session: “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” “Down by the Riverside” and “Peace in the Valley.”

Below are some YouTube clips with music from the original Million Dollar Quartet session.

“Million Dollar Quartet” is at the Paper Mill Playhouse through April 23; visit papermill.org.

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One thought on “The Million Dollar Quartet: What really happened in 1956

  1. Even though it’s only a few snippets of songs, the memories evoked in those moments are priceless to many of us raised in the late 50’s and early 60’s.

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