Reviewed by Piers Beagley - December 4th 2006.
"This is what the founding Fathers of rock 'n' roll music heard and played solely for the love of playing it." - Colin Escott.
"The passage of time, the accumulated force of history and the awesome shadow Presley has cast over popular music have conspired to make December 4th, 1956, a holy day on the rock & roll calendar. The Sun gods were, for
the first and last time, all together in Phillips' rockabilly laboratory with the tapes rolling...
There is still much to marvel at here.. the Complete Million Dollar Session provides a rare post-Sun glimpse of the King momentarily free of the golden shackles of stardom and the manipulative grasp of his manager, Colonel Tom
Parker. His singing, especially on the gospel numbers, is natural and relaxed, minus some of the trademark mannerisms of his official RCA releases. Obviously comfortable in the company of his then heirs apparent,
Presley also speaks freely between numbers, dropping a few minor revelations in the process."
- David Frike, Rolling Stone, 1988.
On December 4th, 1956 RCA's newest sensation Elvis Presley turned up unexpectedly at his old stomping ground of SUN studios at the moment Carl Perkins was recording some new material accompanied by his two brothers and drummer W.S. Holland. By chance newcomer Jerry lee Lewis had been brought in by producer Sam Phillips to add some piano to the session. Elvis was accompanied by girlfriend Marilyn Evans. Elvis picked up a guitar, the three SUN artists started jamming together and magic was in the air. Johnny Cash also happened to be present (he said he was there to check out Carl Perkins' session), the photographs were taken, engineer Jack Clement started the tapes recording and an iconic moment in rock'n'roll's legacy was captured forever.
Over 20 years ago I can still remember my excitement when I first heard rumours of the actual existence of this historical moment in Rock'n'Roll history. With the stories of the session and well-known photos, the reality
of the tape previously seemed as distant as Bill Randle's 'Pied Piper' footage.
The first copy I owned was a dubious bootleg, followed by the double-vinyl release and later the Charly CD. The fact that there might have been more footage and a better quality tape was elusive until now.
To celebrate the 50th Anniversary, RCA releases 'The Complete Million Dollar Quartet' with audio restoration by the diligent Kevan Budd (Elvis At Sun/Loving You/Elvis Presley/Let Yourself Go). Running 79 minutes we at last
have the missing 12 minutes, along with the songs being in the correct order. Not only does this new introduction nicely set the scene to Elvis' participation in this historic jam - but you can witness how everything changes and becomes more focussed once Elvis enters the studio.
With the rock'n'roll boogie at the start you get the feeling that Elvis, along with Sam Phillips, is watching from the Control Booth. Nothing was planned that day, so perhaps Carl Perkins' band deliberately started playing the 'Love Me Tender' instrumental to lure Elvis into the studio. There's a touch of 'Mr Sandman' (not listed) before they kick into the seasonal 'Jingle Bells/White Christmas'.
You can imagine Elvis in the Control booth holding his hands up and indicating, "All right fellas, I'm coming on in to jam."
As soon as Elvis walks in and says hello, the band changes to a different feeling of an exploratory rock'n'roll/Gospel jam.
The surprise here is that, at the time, Elvis was publicly thought of as the Devil incarnate leading his faithful teenage following into a world of sin. The revelation of Elvis as a "fine, honest boy" being interested in gospel music wasn't noted until January 1957 and 'Peace In the Valley' at the final Ed Sullivan show. In fact here were three leaders of the rock'n'roll movement (and the Devil knows that Jerry Lee Lewis really has been to hell and back!) all showing their influences.
This recording is the great example of the soulful stew that these pioneers cooked into Rock 'n' Roll. There's Gospel, Country, Pop, R&B, Latino, Bluegrass, some good old Chuck Berry plus some Dixieland Jazz!
Audio restorer Kevan Budd had weaved his magic to improve the sound quality of this CD over all previous versions. The rumour is that the original tape, that has been released until now, was from Carl Perkins' copy and the sound was pretty muffled. It also sounded as if someone had added echo to the tape. On this shiny new version, gone is muddied sound along with the previously annoying peak distortion where the vocals were too loud. The percussion is so much clearer and the speed, that used to be fraction too slow, has now been corrected too.
There was also the oddity that the original first track 'You Belong To Me' was badly edited into 'When God Dips His Love in My Heart'.
And if you need any further reason to buy this for Christmas then it is the near extra minute in 'Jesus Walked That Lonesome Valley'. Previous releases had an edit (@2.03) which removed a sensational section with Jerry Lee Lewis doing a falsetto against Elvis singing the lead. Now there is a new verse about 'John The Baptist', where Elvis & Jerry Lee really open their souls to the Lord. This session was the first time that Elvis had met rising star Jerry Lee Lewis yet they work so well together. How weird that it was edited out before, as it honestly is one of the best bits of the whole session!
Perhaps the only disappointment is that our heroes go through so many numbers so quickly, 46 tracks in 80 minutes! If only they had tried a full version of 'Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind', 'I'm Gonna Bid My Blues Goodbye', 'You Belong To My Heart,' or 'Don't Forbid Me' (meant for Elvis but we only get a 1 minute snatch here). . talk about leaving one wanting more!
While being able to eavesdrop on this incredible jam is a privilege in itself, there are plenty of absolute magic moments of true inspiration. You can forget the importance of seeing Elvis on stage in the Seventies, forget Aloha, forget even the meeting of The Beatles & Elvis - hell, Paul & Elvis played bass for fun while the others played pool - THIS is the moment where every Elvis fan should dream of having been present.
The are an abundance of highlights...
The first song Elvis galvanises the band with is Lowell Fulsom's 'Reconsider Baby' - a full four years before Elvis would record it. There's a beautifully simple 'Peace In The Valley' demonstrating some sincere spontaneous harmonies, sung here a month before Elvis would record it officially.
'That's When Your Heartaches Begin' delightfully bridges the gap between Elvis' 1953 acetate recording and his 1957 RCA version. You can hear how Elvis' voice and assuredness has grown in such a short time as he slides
effortlessly up & down octaves. Although, amusingly, Elvis' acoustic guitar strumming always remained so basic & familiar.
'Paralysed', is a classic Elvis number (a #8 hit in England) that he had recorded back in September. With no outtakes available this is the only way we can hear Elvis' affection and inspiration towards the song as he plays it live for friends. He even suggests slowing it down, as Jackie Wilson had done to 'Don't Be Cruel'.
'Is It So Strange', another beautiful & emotionally stark number is performed solo by Elvis, and once again 6 weeks before he would record it.
'Little Cabin On The Hill', a surprisingly bluegrass country number for "The King Of Rock'n'Roll", would obviously remain a favourite of Elvis' since he would finally record a one-take jam of it 16 years later in 1970!
There's the change of pace in 'Just a Little Talk With Jesus' where Elvis takes it from a joyful Gospel swing when he hammers the brakes on, "Slow it down Carl", taking it to a pleading R&B feel. From a happy hand-clapping
celebration you can feel Elvis dragging Jerry Lee down onto the floor with him and suddenly they're begging for redemption instead! Marvellous stuff.
More than anything, the highlight is 'Don't Be Cruel' and Elvis showing his open admiration for Billy Ward & The Dominoes' Jackie Wilson for performing better on stage than him. Elvis says that he observed him, "Doing a take off of me, but much better than that record of mine... I went back four nights straight and heard that guy do that.. I was on the table looking at him, man.. Get him off, get him off!"
There is also the true camaraderie and enjoyment that these great musicians find with each other as they jam on old favourites, 'There's No Place Like Home', 'I Shall Not Be Moved', and 'When The Saints Go Marching In' and it is similarly infectious. 'Brown Eyed Handsome Man' is another moment of delightful spontaneousness. These Sun Studio legends are all so cosy in each other's company that they can chat as they sing and play, totally relaxed.
It's unlikely that these creative geniuses could ever be so comfortable together after Christmas 1956.
Of course we shouldn't forget the other musicians. Carl Perkins' brothers Clayton and Jay Perkins along with Charles Underwood played guitars, with 'Fluke' Holland on drums.
There is however no audio proof that Johnny Cash musically participated. Cash's vocal is SO distinctive that at some point it would have to be obvious. Smokey Joe Baugh is the deep voice you can hear on 'I Shall No Be Moved' and Elvis' girlfriend even mentions, "This Rover Boys Trio" implying that only 3 stars were present. This is at odds to Johnny Cash's 1997 biography where he stated that, "I was there. I was the first to arrive and the last to leave. . Contrary to what has been written my voice is on the tape. It's not obvious, because I was farthest away from the mike and I was singing a lot higher than I usually did in order to stay in key with Elvis, but I guarantee you, I'm there".
I am personally not convinced. Why would Elvis say in 'On The Jericho Road' (as he struggles for the lower key), "It takes a Johnny Cash to do this", if Johnny was actually in the Studio or Control Room?
Overall this CD captures a moment of pure musical freedom before Colonel Parker started to control Elvis in every possible situation. Do you think that if The Colonel had been there he would have allowed the tapes to be rolling? Surely not. The contractual difficulties would have stopped him have any control, in a similar way to him enforcing that there be no photos or recordings of Elvis with the Beatles.
After Elvis' career began there can really be only two more moments as creatively free and natural as this. One would surely be the February 24th 1961 rehearsals at Graceland for the Memphis Charity Show. Elvis relatively
recently out of the constraints of the army, with everything he touched going Gold, would be performing once again in front of his adoring fans. Oh, why weren't there tapes of that Graceland jam!?
Secondly there's Elvis' 1968 break for creative freedom at the '68 Comeback Rehearsals. And thank God that the tapes were running on that!
Verdict: 1956 was the year that the Media had to sit up and take note; Rock ‘n’ Roll was the lifeblood of a teenage movement that they couldn’t ignore, and nor would it ever go away. This recording is an essential glimpse into that moment of rock 'n' roll history. Fifty years later, it is heartening to see that this reissue has got plenty of publicity in the mainstream press. Not only that, but I have also seen it in the front racks of my local record store. Watch out for a Christmas bargain price because if Santa doesn't bring this to you on Christmas Eve, then you will just have to buy it for yourself.
The Complete Million Dollar Quartet
BMG 82876 88935-2
Love Me Tender (instrumental)
Jingle Bells (instrumental)
White Christmas (instrumental)
Don't Be Cruel
Don't Be Cruel
There's No Place Like Home
When The Saints Go Marchin' In
Softly And Tenderly
When God Dips His Love In My Heart
Just A Little Talk With Jesus
Jesus Walked That Lonesome Valley
I Shall Not Be Moved
Peace In The Valley
Down By The Riverside
I'm With A Crowd But So Alone
Blessed Jesus (Hold My Hand)
On the The Jericho Road
I Just Can't Make It By Myself
Little Cabin Home On The Hill
Summertime Is Past And Gone
I Hear A Sweet Voice Calling
Sweetheart You Done Me Wrong
Keeper Of The Key [Carl Perkins Lead vocal]
Don't Forbid Me
Too Much Monkey Business
Brown Eyed Handsome Man
Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind
Brown Eyed Handsome Man
Don't Forbid Me
You Belong To My Heart
Is It So Strange
That's When Your Heartaches Begin
Brown Eyed Handsome Man
Rip It Up
I'm Gonna Bid My Blues Goodbye
That's My Desire
End Of The Road
Black Bottom Stomp
You're The Only Star In My Blue Heaven
Elvis Says Goodbye
Review by Piers Beagley
-Copyright EIN, December 4th 2006!
Click here to comment on the review
Go here for other relevant EIN articles:
Kevan Budd talks about 'Loving You' and 'Elvis At Sun'
EIN deluxe FTD 'Loving You' review
EIN deluxe FTD 'Elvis Presley' review
Spotlight: Elvis Vs Jerry Lee Lewis!
EIN Spotlights about the musical influences on The King: The Blues, The Statesmen, The Blackwood Brothers, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Roy Hamilton, Mario Lanza
APRIL 2010- 'Million Dollar Quartet' The New Musical Opening on Broadway: A new musical inspired by the actual event, is currently in previews at Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre with an official opening on Sunday, April 11.The cast includes Eddie Clendening (Elvis Presley), Lance Guest (Johnny Cash), Levi Kreis (Jerry Lee Lewis), Robert Britton Lyons (Carl Perkins), Hunter Foster (Sam Phillips) and Elizabeth Stanley (Dyanne).
On December 4, 1956, an auspicious twist of fate brought Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley together. The place was Sun Records’ storefront studio in Memphis. The man who made it happen was Sam Phillips, the “Father of Rock and Roll,” who discovered them all. The four young musicians united for the only time in their careers for an impromptu recording that has come to be known as one of the greatest rock jam sessions of all time.
Inspired by the actual event, MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET features a treasure trove of the greatest rock and roll, gospel, R&B
|and country hits from these musicians, including such iconic songs as “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Fever,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Who Do You Love?,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Riders in the Sky,” “I Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET captures the infectious spirit, freewheeling excitement and thrilling sounds of a singular moment when four of the music industry’s most extraordinary talents, all in their creative prime, came together for one of the most memorable nights in music history.
Directed by Eric Schaeffer, it features a book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, and was originally directed and conceived by Mutrux. The design team for Broadway includes: Derek McLane (scenic design), Howell Binkley (lighting design), Jane Greenwood (costume design), Kai Harada (sound design) and Chuck Mead (musical arrangements and supervision).
Click here to watch the promo video
Go here for photos, free downloads, ticket information and more
Copyright the Elvis Information Network.
Elvis Presley, Elvis and Graceland are trademarks of Elvis Presley Enterprises.
The Elvis Information Network has been running since 1986 and is an EPE officially recognised Elvis fan club.