Spotlight On: The Million Dollar Quartet


As some of you may have gathered from reading my work here over the years, I am proud to be a citizen of Memphis, Tennessee. Around the world this city on the banks of the Mississippi River is known for; BBQ, Grizzlies/Tigers basketball, wrestling, and of course the music. Music as a medium changed forever courtesy of the artists who came from the Bluff City. Both the blues and rock n’ roll were born here, and plenty of other Memphis musicians have been game changers in the genres of: R&B, hip-hop, indie rock, and pop. The man who originally took the Memphis sound to a mass audience was Sun Studios founder Sam Phillips. Wanting to find something new, Phillips assembled a talent roster of some of the greatest artists in music history. Of these musicians there are four icons who especially stand out: Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and of course Elvis Presley. One day in December of 1956, these four men happened to all meet up at Sun Studios; Perkins was recording with Lewis, while Elvis and Johnny Cash popped by for a friendly visit. Inevitably a jam session broke out and Sam Phillips dubbed this collection of talent, the Million Dollar Quartet. Knowing that this would be a moment to be remembered, a famous photograph of the Quartet was taken by George Pierce of the  Memphis Press-Scimitar. To this day the photograph of four of the greatest musicians of the 20th century is one of the most iconic in history. So today we focus the Spotlight On the four men who made up the Million Dollar Quartet.

Elvis Presley in Tupelo, Mississippi  Sept 26, 1956  © 1978 Roger MarshutzÑMPTV

Elvis Presley: During the early days of Sun Studios, a young man who worked as a truck driver wandered into their studio on Union Avenue. He was only looking to record a song to give to his mother for her birthday, but Sam Phillips recognized that young Elvis Presley oozed of star power. While he built his reputation with the studio, inevitably the bright lights and money offered by larger record companies lured him away, though he and Phillips remained close friends. Songs like; “Suspicious Minds”,”Hound Dog”, “Jail House Rock” and so many others lit up the music charts and those lucky enough to see him live were electrified by his stage presence and charisma. It was not long before Presley made a leap to the big screen where he became a bankable box office star. As the years went on Elvis’ image evolved, as he lost his edge and began to don glitzier and more theatrical attire and performed storied concerts in Las Vegas and Hawaii. He never ventured overseas however due to the legal issues concerning his eccentric and underhanded manager Colonel Tom Parker. He built a home dubbed Graceland where he often hosted other famous musicians as well as his rowdy friends in the Memphis Mafia. It goes without saying that Elvis is one of the most influential figures in entertainment history.

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Carl Perkins: While he may not have been the most famous of the four, Perkins has no doubt left a powerful musical legacy as arguably the greatest rockabilly artist of all-time. Born into a family of sharecroppers, Perkins grew up hearing both southern-gospel from his white friends and rhythm n’ blues from his African American friends. This was in addition to the country music he would hear on the radio everynight. This blend of genres clearly left an impact on the young Perkins who began touring Tennessee performing his own songs. He eventually found his way to Sun Studios where he collaborated with Elvis and Johnny Cash while releasing his own songs. In 1955 he wrote and recorded “Blue Suede Shoes” which became the studio’s biggest hit. This song proved to be Carl Perkins’ breakout hit, and led to him performing all over the world and working with everyone from; Charlie Daniels to Bob Dylan to the Beatles to Eric Clapton who all held a deep respect for the singer.

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Johnny Cash: During the first half of the twentieth century, famous country musicians were known for crooning catchy tunes while decked out in rhinestones. Enter Johnny Cash, with a somber baritone voice and draped in black, Cash was unlike any other mainstream country artist at the time. At Sun, Cash would record his anthem “I Walk the Line” which dominated both the country and pop charts, but he was far from finished making crossover hits in his career. Cash was famous for living the rock star life, which led to frequent run-ins with the law cultivating his image as a stone cold outlaw. The singer became famous for performing at different prisons, even recording his album At Folsom Prison actually at Folsom State Prison. Throughout his long career, Cash constantly found ways to stay relevant even into his final days. Whether this came from performing in the country supergroup, the Highwaymen or collaborating with producer Rick Rubin on his critically praised American series of albums. Johnny Cash had an edge and natural coolness which to this day earns him as much respect in a honky-tonk as it does in a punk rock club.

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Jerry Lee Lewis: One of the most electric entertainers of the twentieth century in any medium. At the time the Million Dollar Quartet was founded he was the least popular singer there as his first record would not hit until a few days after the photograph was taken. But there was no denying his charisma and talent would take him far. Hits like, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire” were massively popular with young listeners while their parents were shocked at Lewis’ wild music. Strangely those who knew him pointed out that having been raised a devout Christian, the fact the religious leaders were now condemning him did bother the singer. Though he did nothing to tone down his image, in fact at one show when he found out that Chuck Berry and not himself would be the closing act, took a Coke bottle full of gasoline and poured in on his piano, he proceeding to light it on fire while performing “Great Balls of Fire” which drove the audience crazy. Walking back to his dressing room he made a point of telling Berry “Follow that motherf****r!”. He was the source of great controversy in 1958, when it was revealed that Jerry Lee Lewis had married his own teenage cousin, Myra Gale Brown. Of the four musicians who made up the Million Dollar Quartet, Lewis is the only would still living and from time to time will return to Memphis to perform shows.