The Million Dollar Quartet is an entertaining Tony Award-winning musical. It’s the story of the most famous rock and roll “jam session” in history. The show features four of the most famous rock and roll stars of all-time Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins singing together, but were they a quartet?
What’s a “quartet?” In musical terms, it’s a group of four people intentionally playing instruments or singing together as a group. Examples are “Jazz quartet,” “the Four Lads,” and “string quartet.”
Four people sang together, why isn’t it a quartet? If they weren’t a quartet, why is the show named the Million Dollar Quartet? To get the answers, let’s go back to the storefront recording studio of Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee on December 4, 1956.
Sun recording artist, Carl Perkins, was in the studio doing a recording session for what would become his next hit, “Matchbox.” Playing with him was his brother Jay on bass, drummer, “Fluke” Holland, and budding Sun recording artist, Jerry Lee Lewis, on the piano.
Johnny Cash, another Sun recording artist, stopped by to watch the session and talk with Sam Perkins, the owner of Sun Records. Later, RCA, and ex-Sun, recording artist Elvis Presley, just dropped by with a young woman he was seeing at the time.
At the end of the Perkins recording session, the four young performers spontaneously started talking, playing music, and singing. The resulting unplanned jam session, involving four of the greatest rock and roll performers of all-time in the early stages of their careers, was a unique onetime event. They never performed together again!
When Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records, discovered the jam session, he called Bob Johnson, the entertainment editor of the “Memphis Press-Scimitar.” Johnson came to the studio with a photographer. The next day he published an article entitled, “The Million Dollar Quartet.”
That would have been the end of it, and the “Million Dollar Quartet” would have been a forgotten footnote of history. In fact, it was for decades, and would have remained that way except for the foresight of sound technician Jack Clement. He had recorded the Perkins session and was still in the sound booth. When the impromptu jam session started, he recognized its significance and recorded it without anyone’s knowledge.
The recording went into the Sun Records “library,” where it remained unnoticed for decades. It was discovered by a new owner of Sun Records and was recorded and released in Europe in 1981 under the title “Million Dollar Quartet.”
The recording and the events of the original jam session became the basis for the musical Million Dollar Quartet, written by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott, which premiered in 2007. This Tony Award winning hit has played in Chicago, Broadway, and Las Vegas and has toured extensively in the US and abroad. It’s currently one of the hottest shows in Branson, Missouri, performing at the Welk Resort Theatre.
The common definition of “quartet” is immaterial. Bob Johnson’s headline, the day after the jam session, “Million Dollar Quartet,” has stood the test of time. It will forever describe what Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins were, and did, on December 4, 1956.