The date was December 4, 1965. Carl Perkins and his band were hunkered down at Sun Records for a recording session that included a not-yet-famous piano player named Jerry Lee Lewis. (Lewis’ first Sun release was on the way, but it would be another 7 months before he would have his first national hit.) Johnny Cash decided to stop by to observe the session from the control room. Sometime in the early afternoon, Elvis Presley (who had left Sun for RCA Victor) dropped in with his new girlfriend, Marilyn Evans, and history was made. Presley had met Marilyn while he was playing at the New Frontier in Vegas and she was dancing in a chorus line there. He had asked her out by slipping her a note on a napkin in the casino cafeteria. After a few dates, he summoned her to his Memphis home to continue their courtship.
This December day, Presley and Evans had graced the doorstep of Sun Records wanting to hear playback of the Perkins’ session, which by all accounts had just concluded. Shortly after, the King then went into the studio and a jam session ensued. The session engineer, Jack Clement, recalls thinking, “I think I’d be remiss not to record this.” Fortunately for us, he did just that.
The session tapes reveal spiritual songs (“Just a Little Talk with Jesus”, “Peace in the Valley”, “When God Dips His Love in My Heart” and “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In”) that all four artists likely had grown up singing, or at the very least, hearing. All four men had famously come from very religious southern families. Cash had even auditioned for Sam Phillips with a number of gospel selections which initially resulted in rejection since Phillips was no longer recording gospel. Cash landed the contract when he came back singing rockabilly.
Elvis admires Jackie Wilson
Of all of the singing and session chatter, perhaps the most passionate you’ll hear Elvis is when he talks about the “slender” “colored” singer that he saw a couple of weeks prior in Las Vegas fronting Billy Ward’s Dominoes. The Dominoes had been playing the lounge at the Sahara and the King attended several of their shows. Presley says the singer tried “Hound Dog” and didn’t do very well, but his version of “Don’t Be Cruel” was so impressive that Elvis spends a bit of time impersonating the impersonator doing his own song. That slender fellow was, of course, Jackie Wilson.
Elvis says Jackie Wilson “sang hell outta that song” and did it better “than that record of mine.” While he pokes fun of Wilson’s pronunciation of the word “telephone” in “Don’t Be Cruel”, getting a rousing laugh from the room, Elvis seems to have adopted the Domino’s spin on the word when he performed it on the Ed Sullivan Show a month later.
Elvis laments songs he could have recorded, covers the Five Keys, Chuck Berry and Little Richard
Elvis declares that “You Belong to My Heart” is “gonna come back someday” and “make a splash.” He then proceeds to play and sing snippets in English and Spanish while Jerry Lee cheers him on. He recounts that Faron Young “Is It So Strange” and sent to him but “didn’t want to give (Elvis) any of it.” Elvis also asks those in attendance if they’ve heard Pat Boone’s new song, “Don’t Forbid Me”, which he said had been intended for him, but got overlooked due to the volume of material he was receiving at the time.
Carl Perkins remarks that he just came off of a tour with Chuck Berry. They pay tribute to Chuck, singing bits and pieces of “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” with Elvis crooning a verse of The Five Keys’ “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” thrown in the middle of it. One of the quartet remarks of the Keys’ hit, “that’s a pretty song right there.” Elvis also delivers a single line each of Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” and Little Richard’s “Rip It Up.”
Elvis’ girlfriend Marilyn requests “End of the Road” but she states that she is not the voice requesting “Farther Along” as she did not have a southern drawl (being from Fresno, California.) There are several unidentified voices on the session tapes.
A few photographs thankfully exist, as Sun Records founder Sam Phillips called the Memphis Press-Scimitar and Bob Johnson, the paper’s entertainment editor, came over to the studios to capture the magic. He brought photographer George Pierce. It was Johnson who wrote the article and headlined it “Million Dollar Quartet”. The article contained the now-famous photograph of Elvis at the piano with Lewis, Perkins and Cash all around him. Included here is the less-famous un-cropped version that includes Marilyn Evans perched on that piano.
An LP, lifting the newspaper headline as its title, would be released in Europe in 1981 and in the U.S. in 1990. However, the impromptu session’s notoriety peaked when the tapes were used as framework for a stage production that would later hit Broadway. The musical “Million Dollar Quartet” was nominated for a Tony Award and a touring production still packs houses to this day.