Tuesday 4 December 1956 — on that day Carl Perkins was in the studio, accompanied by his brothers Jay and Clayton and drummer W.S. ‘Fluke’ Holland, with the intention of recording some new material that would include a version of the old blues song, Matchbox. Sam Phillips wanted to expand the sparse sound and brought in his new signing, Jerry Lee Lewis who would play piano.
Sometime during the afternoon Elvis Presley, now an RCA Recording artist, and his girlfriend Marilyn Evans called in to see Sam Phillips and it wasn’t long before an impromptu jam session began. Phillips had the good sense to turn on the tape machine to capture this historic moment. It was sometime during this session that Johnny Cash arrived although, to this day, mystery surrounds his actual involvement in the proceedings.
Not one to miss a photo opportunity and some publicity Phillips called a local newspaper and Robert Johnson came over to the studios accompanied by a photographer. The following day an article, written by Johnson about the session, was published in the Memphis Press-Scimitar under the title ‘Million Dollar Quartet’. The article included the now legendary photo of Elvis seated at the piano surrounded by Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.
The tapes of this legendary session remained unheard for over twenty years with contractual issues, especially with Presley’s new label, being the main stumbling block. Shelby Singleton, who had purchased Sun Records in 1969, undertook a long search of the Sun catalogue and licensed nearly all of the Sun catalogue to the UK Charly Records label. A result of this search was the issue of seventeen songs from the Million Dollar recordings, most of which were in the gospel genre.
Several years later, additional material was discovered which resulted in the release of the 1987 double album The Complete Million Dollar Session, together with a simultaneous issue in CD format in Europe. Over the next twenty years this material has been issued countless times on different labels, each with a different selection of tracks and often in differing running orders.
Ernst Jorgensen, who has worked on countless excellent Elvis Presley releases, claims that the material issued contains around 95 percent of the recordings. Apparently there were three reels and on the first you can hear Elvis arriving and on the final reel you can hear him leave. It would seem that the chance of ever finding any more tracks seems slim but a recent release does offer an additional twelve minutes of material so who knows! This also adds fuel to the fire as regard to Johnny Cash’s involvement at the session about which more later.
They also turn their hand to hits of the day including The Five Keys Out Of Sight Out Of Mind, Pat Boone’s Don’t Forbid Me and snippets of Rip It Up, Too Much Monkey Business and Brown Eyed Handsome Man.
Elvis talks about seeing Jackie Wilson in Las Vegas as part of Billy Ward’s Dominoes singing Don’t Be Cruel and goes on to imitate Wilson. He also performs some songs he was due to record at forthcoming RCA sessions including Is It So Strange, Peace In The Valley and That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.
Elvis plays piano on most of the tracks, or at least until Jerry Lee takes over the final few songs, and is also the featured lead vocalist. Perkins does sing lead on Keeper Of The Key and his band are actually featured on the earlier tracks recorded that day.
On listening to all the material that has been released so far one thing is very obvious and that is the fact that Johnny Cash’s voice does not seem to appear on any of the tracks.
According to Robert Johnson, Cash did join Presley, Perkins and Lewis on Blueberry Hill and Isle Of Golden Dreams despite neither track showing up. Perkins, in a 1972 interview, confirmed this when he mentioned these two songs alongside I Won’t Have To Cross The Jordan Alone, The Old Rugged Cross, Tutti Frutti and Big Boss Man. Again none of these tracks have surfaced so maybe Cash is present on these tracks.
When did Cash arrive at the studio? There are reports that Cash had gone to the studio to pick up some money that was owed to him and that he was there before Elvis arrived.
In his 1997 autobiography Cash wrote, “I was there. I was the first to arrive and the last to leave, contrary to what has been written- but I was just there to watch Carl record, which he did until mid-afternoon, when Elvis came in with his girlfriend. At that point the session stopped and we all started laughing and cutting up together. Then Elvis sat down at the piano, and we started singing gospel songs we all knew, then some Bill Monroe songs. Elvis wanted to hear songs Bill had written besides Blue Moon of Kentucky, and I knew the whole repertoire. So, again contrary to what some people have written, my voice is on the tape. It’s not obvious, because I was farthest away from the mike 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.”
It has also been reported that Cash only stayed for a short time and then left to do some Christmas shopping while another story claims that he was only asked to join the session after Phillips had chosen to call the Memphis Press Scimitar.
Whatever story is true there is no doubt he was there at some point as proved by the photo and it would seem very strange to believe that he would just turn up for the photo and then leave straight after.
Listening to the recordings we are given a couple of clues that would suggest that Cash was not present for the recording and maybe did just pose for the photo. Smokey Joe Baugh, who did not sing but was in the studio can be heard saying, after I Shall Not Be Moved, “You oughta get up a quartet.” Then there is the female voice that can be heard asking if “This Rover Boys Trio can sing Farther Along?”
However, we can also hear Elvis mentioning Cash by name during the song On The Jericho Road which suggests he was at the least in the studio and possibly taking part in the session at that point.
Until more tapes are found from these historic sessions we will never know the answer to this question. In the meantime sit back and enjoy what is available, you won’t be disappointed.