I recently read that the famous "Million Dollar Quartet" has been turned into a musical that is playing at a theatre in the USA. According to the synopsis, Sam Phillips knows his recording stars are on the move and makes plans for a one-of-a-kind recording session that kicks off with "Blue Suede Shoes". Pure fiction, in other words.
Better to experience the real thing, and that's what I did this afternoon. For the first time I played the 50th anniversary CD edition of this jam session where Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash got together that December afternoon, 1956.
At least they are all on the photograph that was taken, but the question has always been if Johnny Cash actually sang on any of the songs. In his autobiography Cash states that his voice is on the tape. "It's not obvious, because I was farthest away from the mike and singing a lot higher than I usually did in order to stay in key with Elvis, but I guarantee you, I'm there," he writes.
I don't know, The Man In Black must've been a really long way from the mike, because I can't detect him in any of the songs. My bet is there's only a trio singing and playing. And the one who's in command is obviously Elvis.
He sings lead most of the time, with Carl Perkins playing the guitar and Jerry Lee hammering on the piano and doing a lot of background singing. The Killer wasn't famous at the time, and I don't think he would've let Elvis dominate so much if the jam had taken place a few years later.
One of the highlights is Elvis impersonating Jackie Wilson impersonating Elvis on "Don't Be Cruel". It's also interesting to hear Elvis telling the guys that he still thinks that "That's When Your Heartaches Begin" could be a hit: "If somebody could sing it right I'd think it sell." (The following month he did record it).
On a final note, "The Million Dollar Quartet" is not something that works well as background music. But if you put on your headphones, close your eyes and really listen, you do become a fly on the wall in the Sun Records studio that legendary day, over 50 years ago.