Spots in Time – Gord Turner
A year or so ago we were in Las Vegas and taking in as many shows as possible in a one-week period. Having always been interested in the group of recording artists who began their careers in the mid 1950s, we decided to buy tickets to the “Million Dollar Quartet.”
The Million Dollar Quartet was comprised of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. All of these singers/musicians had made their debut at the recording studio of Sam Philips in Memphis, Tennessee in the 1950s.
The most famous initially was Carl Perkins with “Blue Suede Shoes,” but he was soon overshadowed by the other three — in particular, Elvis Presley.
The dramatic musical we watched in Las Vegas was based on one evening in Sam Philips’ Sun Studio just before Christmas in 1956. Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins were jamming at the studio when Elvis, with a slight break in his touring schedule, dropped in.
Then Johnny Cash showed up, and they had quite a session, singing old songs and trying out new ones. Someone took a photo of the four of them with Elvis at the piano, and that photo inspired the show the “Million Dollar Quartet.”
It was a marvelous program of early rock and roll music from Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel” to Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire.” We loved every second of the show and, in particular, we were overwhelmed by the piano playing and antics of the actor playing Jerry Lee Lewis. He must have been something in real life.
Recently, we traveled to the Memphis area, mainly to visit Graceland and participate in the Elvis Presley memorabilia. While there, we visited Sun Studios, which is still housed in the same building and has been restored to its 1950s décor.
The Sun entry room was set up with soda-fountain bar stools fronting a Coca-Cola and coffee bar. Just down the room was a gift shop featuring T-shirts, hats, ornaments, and CDs from the various blues and rock and roll artists recorded by Sun Records. The room was laden with merchandise heavy in Elvis and Jerry Lee and Carl and Johnny.
But the real excitement came when we toured the recording studio and the museum rooms themselves. We heard all the stories about the blues background to rock and roll, and we listened to the tales of the efforts of the early rock and rollers to make it with their style of music.
There’s a story, for example, that depicts Elvis running all the way from his home to the Sun Studio when Sam Philips asked him to be a third musician with the Bill Black combo to try out various pieces of music.
Sam Philips didn’t like Elvis’s singing voice initially. Perhaps it had to do with Elvis recording slower songs like “My Happiness.” At any rate, Philips did not like any of the tunes the Bill Black group tried out, but after the session, Elvis was fooling around with the group and singing blues songs he had learned on his own.
One song in particular caught Philips’ attention, Elvis’s upbeat version of “That’s All Right, Mama,” and the rest is musical history.
It was interesting to stand in the tiny studio where the Million Dollar Quartet had its jam session on that famous night in 1956. The microphone was there, and the piano was there. All that was missing were the four rock and rollers—and the only one still alive is Jerry Lee Lewis who lives not far away in Mississippi.