Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Legend of the Million Dollar Quartet.

The Million Dollar Quartet, l-r: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, & Johnny Cash.

On December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley swung by his old label, Sun Records, where he found Carl Perkins cutting a session with a then-unknown Jerry Lee Lewis playing backup on piano; just then, Johnny Cash popped his head in while out shopping for Christmas presents, & the legend of the "Million Dollar Quartet" was born.

The truth, as it always is, is more complicated & less romantic: While the first part is essentially true, it seems like Cash was probably called in specifically from his house to complete Sun Records' rock & roll Mt. Rushmore. Also, Cash is inconspicuously absent from the recordings made that day, despite the iconic photo above & the contemporary newspaper report of the guys singing "Blueberry Hill," which is nowhere to be found.

But, as the Gods say, close enough.

The recordings that do survive of the Million Dollar Trio (if you will) are one of rock & roll's great lost founding documents, often overlooked for the very thing that makes them so fascinating: For all of the different things they sing — from "White Christmas" to "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" — there is very little of what we would think of as rock & roll. There's no "Blue Suede Shoes" or "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," & the only time Elvis does break into one of his classics, "Don't Be Cruel," it's to describe how an African-American performer sung the song better than him (the singer turned out to be a young Jackie Wilson).

Elvis imitating Jackie Wilson imitating Elvis imitating Dean Martin or whoever he had in his head the day he recorded "Don't Be Cruel" is essential listening, & should be sought out by any fan of music.

Yet it is a very poor indicator of the music made that day, which was partly blues, partly country, but mostly gospel. After blues & country, gospel music gets the short end of the stick, but here Elvis, Jerry Lee, & Carl make a case for it as being rock's great lost third influence. Check out the boys singing "I Shall Not Be Moved" — a gospel song in form & lyric, to be sure, but country-blues rockabilly in every other way, from the boogie rhythm to Carl's snapping solos:


Not only are these tapes the only known recordings of Elvis & Jerry Lee together, they are the only known records of Elvis talking freely about music, period, filled out by a stream-of-conscious playlist of illustrations. It would be like the Founding Fathers made a webcast of themselves raiding Thomas Jefferson's bookshelf. Only a lot more fun to listen to.

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