December 4th 1956 was a wonderful occasion for rock and roll. Wonderful because it was a night that was to see four large music talents, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash all sharing a microphone, jamming in a studio and leaving behind unbeknownst to them a live recording of it for posterity. It began innocently enough with a simple recording session booked by Carl Perkins at Sam Phillip’s Sun Studios. He brought with him his brother’s Clayton and Jay with W.S. “Fluke” Holland on drums. Buck Perkins, Carl’s father was also there and in the booth watching. A twenty one year old Jerry Lee Lewis was booked by Sam to play piano on Carl’s session. Jerry was not a star as of yet but sure acted like one, cocky and confident. Carl first recorded his song “Your True Love” of which Sam Phillip’s proclaimed, “that’s a hit” and of which Jerry Lee purportedly then said, “that song ain’t worth a damn!” Carl thought better of calling Jerry out as he likely chalked it up to his youthful enthusiasm and cockiness.
Legend has it that Carl’s father Buck then asked Carl to do an old blues song Buck used to sing around the house a bit called, “Matchbox.” Buck likely heard the Blind Lemon Jefferson version or heard someone else singing it in the cotton fields. Carl remembered Buck singing it partially around the house and workers out on the cotton fields. He then literally wrote his own version with new verses right in the studio. The finished product did not resemble Blind Lemon Jefferson’s version whatsoever and instead was a fiery chant about how poor and downtrodden one can be but with an uptempo beat. Apparently Jerry Lee’s cockiness inspired Carl to fire out two angry yet perfectly suited to the song guitar solos.
Shortly after “Matchbox” was completed there was horsing around in the studio while everyone took a break. Johnny Cash dropped in at some point during this and then a little later Elvis Presley arrived to the studio with a Las Vegas dancer he’d met by the name of Marilyn Evans. Elvis was with RCA records by this time and no longer a Sun Records recording artist and he was already signed to shoot his very first Hollywood movie. Elvis sat at the piano for a bit and this was to be the very first time Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis had ever met. If you have never listened to the jam session that ensued I highly recommend it. Gospel, country, and of course rock and roll, all mixed together and one can feel the camaraderie and the common background of gospel music they all had. It’s also great to hear them all revere other current artists of the day like Chuck Berry and Jackie Wilson. Sam Phillips was wise enough to know he might not never get all these guys in the studio at the same time so he called the local paper and a reporter by the name of Robert Johnson came by with a photographer. The next day Johnson referred to everyone in the article as “The Million Dollar Quartet.”
The recording stands as a monument to four American legends in their prime and as a living testament to how talented they all were. Can you imagine four of today’s current top 40 artists getting together without having met before and jamming out songs? Would they even know any other songs other than their own and would they all be able to play an instrument? Hard to say but this group of guys were truly at the right place at the right time and we are all lucky now to be able to be a fly on the wall. Thank you Sam Phillips for taping it and thank you to “Presley, Perkins, Lewis and Cash” for a “One Night in Memphis” that will never be forgotten.