December 4: The Million Dollar Quartet

Million_Dollar_QuartetOn the afternoon of December 4, 1956, future rockabilly legend Carl Perkins arrived at Sam Phillip’s Sun Records Studios to record his next single, “Matchbox.” Although Perkins recorded “Matchbox” that day, that day’s recording session instead went down in history, as over the course of the afternoon Perkins was joined by three other rock and roll pioneers for pop music history’s greatest jam session.

It all began simple enough, Phillips was looking for a way to strengthen the arrangement of “Matchbox” so he brought in a local piano playing wunderkind named Jerry Lee Lewis to add his killer barrel house piano style to the recording. Lewis was about a year removed from making it big with hits like “Great Balls Of Fire” and at that point had just been signed to Sun.

As the session wrapped up, Elvis Presley (a former Sun artist who had by that point signed to RCA) dropped by with his then girlfriend. He listened to Perkins’ recording and then asked if Perkins, Lewis and Perkins’ backing band wanted to mess around a bit. Soon after Johnny Cash dropped by the recording booth and was invited to join in on the fun. Soon, Perkins, Lewis, Presley and Cash were talking shop and trading off verses on some of their own hits as well as old blues numbers, gospel spirituals and even a few songs by their contemporaries including Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.”

The Chuck Berry cover is emblematic of the jam session’s style. Really, these are just four guys busting out the guitars (or a piano in Lewis’ case) and playing around. The thing I love about this recording is how Presley and Lewis frequently have to consult Presley’s girlfriend about how the song’s verses start. The conversations the four rock legends have in between and during songs are also a lot of fun. Take for example, Presley and Lewis expressing their fondness for certain lines in “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” or Presley performing a hard bluesy version of “Don’t Be Cruel,” and talking about seeing soul singer Jackie Wilson perform the song in concert. Of course, while telling the tale, the King does his impersonation of Jackie Wilson performing the song.

Now, of course, Sam Phillips was a smart business man and as the jam session was going on, he did two brilliant things: First, he called a local reporter and asked him to write a story about this unexpected meeting of past, present and future Sun stars. The ensuing news story about the day’s jam session dubbed the four singers “The Million Dollar Quartet.” Second, and most importantly, Phillips realized that he was watching something big, so he had engineer Jack Clement record everything the quartet did in the recording studio that day. Shockingly, the recordings from this great moment in rock history was not be released to the public until 1981.

There’s no better way to toast the Million Dollar Quartet than with a Million Dollar Cocktail. This fizzy concoction, which is actually surprisingly cheap to make, was invented in 1910 by Ngiam Tong Boon at The Long Bar in Singapore’s Raffles Hotel.

Million Dollar Cocktail

  • 2 ounces Dry Gin
  • 1 ounce Sweet Vermouth
  • 1/2 ounce pineapple juice
  • 1/2 ounce grenadine
  • 1 egg white

Shake vigorously with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Tomorrow: A drinker’s favorite holiday.


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