Four for the Show: Dividing Fact From Fiction in Million Dollar Quartet

By Robert Simonson
12 Apr 2010

Carl Perkins
Carl Perkins

Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, the four great stars of Memphis' legendary Sun Records, all in one room together. That's the premise on which the new Broadway musical Million Dollar Quartet is built.

That the meeting, in the Sun Studios on Dec. 4, 1956, occurred is not in dispute. All the participants attested to being there. There's a picture to prove it, and the jam session that spontaneously sprung up that day was recorded and, years later, released. Plus, a reporter—quickly drafted by canny Sun producer Sam Phillips—was on the premises to witness the event.

That, however, does not mean that everything you see on stage at the Nederlander Theatre is gospel truth. "What we did in the show was take 18 months of history and kind of condense it into one night," said Colin Escott, who co-wrote the show's book with Floyd Mutrux. Escott knows the history of Sun Records as few others do. In 1992 Escott and Martin Hawkins published "Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll," a detailed account of the small recording studio put together by the scrappily independent Sam Phillips. In the early years of rock, Phillips discovered and recorded Presley, Cash, Perkins and Lewis, not to mention Roy Orbinson and Charlie Rich, and therefore influenced the course of popular music for decades to come.

In a sidebar in the book, Escott wrote about the so-called "Million Dollar Quartet" session. (The name was coined by Bob Johnson, the Memphis Press-Scimitar reported in attendance.) "Floyd read that and thought it would be a good show," remembered Escott.



So how did those four towering talents manage to meet at Sun on that same December day? Well, according to Escott—and as depicted in the musical—the day began as a scheduled Carl Perkins studio session. History shows Perkins would indeed cut such future classics as "Matchbox" on Dec. 4, 1956. Jerry Lee Lewis—who, unlike Perkins, Presley and Cash, was not yet a star (1957 would prove to be his big year)—was on hand as a session musician. This is also depicted faithfully in the show. "Lewis had just arrived in Memphis just a few weeks earlier," said Escott. "I think his first record had been out just a few days."

Presley's visit seems to have been a matter of happenstance. Though discoverd by Phillips, the producer had sold his contract to RCA in late 1955. "He kind of returned there as a kind of touchstone," said Escott. "This is where he once was happy. He'd become such a lightening rod for all the antipathy directed toward rock and roll. He returned there just to reconnect with what was a happier place and time for him."

As for Cash, who had also broken into the big time by then, "Sam Phillips had heard Johnny Cash was in town, called him and said, 'Come on over.' Cash and Perkins and Elvis, they knew each other. They all toured together back in less prosperous times." None of the three men knew Lewis at that time.

Once the quartet was together, a jam session ensued. "The songs that were sung that day were kind of like a primer on where rock and roll came from. A lot of gospel songs, bluegrass, blues, country." A few gospel tunes are indeed sung at the Nederlander. However, some popular songs included in the show, like "Sixteen Tons," were not sung that day in 1956, and are featured in the show mainly because of the strong connection in the public consciousness between the tunes and the singers.

Escott guesses that the four were only together for about two hours.

There is one other major character in the musical beside the four musicians and Phillips—a woman named Dyanne, who arrives with Elvis and is introduced as his girlfriend. This is partially true to life. Presley did come with his girlfriend, but her name was Marilyn Evans, a chorus dancer Presley had met in Las Vegas. Their relationship was brief, ending a few weeks after the Sun session. And unlike Dyanne in the show, Marilyn did not join the jam session at all; Dyanne sings two solos, and joins in on a few others.

Some dramatic points involving Phillips, Cash and Perkins are fudged in the show as well. The primary piece of dramatic tension in Million Dollar Quartet surrounds Phillips' attempt to sign Cash to a new three-year-contract. Cash reveals, however, that he has signed with Columbia and is leaving Sun. This causes Perkins, too, to reveal that he has signed with Columbia. In reality, Cash and Perkins would remain with Sun for another year, not leaving for Columbia until the end of 1958.

"It was the informality of it that made it great," said Escott of why the serendipitous meeting has resonated so much throughout the years. "When you have the pre-arranged meetings of superstars, they are usually stilted. When you have something loose and informal, you really get a spontanaity and joy in making music that you don't get in something that's prearranged."