One of the most important things to remember about this album is it's really just four guys in a room shooting the breeze, goofing around, and stumbling through a few old songs. This wouldn't be especially interesting under most circumstances, but the three guys in question happen to be Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins, which, as you might imagine, makes quite a difference. Perkins was doing a recording session at the Sun Records studio in Memphis on December 4, 1956, with Lewis playing piano on the date, when Elvis, back in Memphis after a stretch on the road following his breakthrough as a major star, stopped by to say hello. Elvis, Perkins, and Lewis began casually jamming -- mostly on old gospel tunes they remembered from a shared Baptist upbringing -- and Sam Phillips
had the presence of mind to record the proceedings. (A famous picture taken that day shows Johnny Cash with the group, but if he stuck around to sing a few tunes, he stayed far enough away from the mike to be absent on these recordings.) To call the performances "casual" taxes understatement, and if you were expecting the ultimate rockabilly moment from these guys, be aware it's about halfway through the session before rock & roll begins to rear its head, and even then it's obvious these guys can play "Down by the Riverside" off the top of their heads far more easily than "Too Much Monkey Business." But half the fun of this album is the playful casualness of the performances (and hearing three of rock's great legends in such non-legendary form). And their personalities certainly manifest themselves right off the bat: Elvis is effortlessly authoritative, and at once amused and perplexed by his sudden fame, while Lewis harmonizes like a wildman, determined to show he's the star of the show, and Perkins displays his characteristic modesty, content to add churchy harmonies and the occasional signature guitar break. It's also fun to hear Elvis imitate Jackie Wilson
imitating him, and Perkins marveling at the genius of Chuck Berry
. Million Dollar Quartet
is really just three guys goofing off -- but from these three guys, "goofing off" is really something to hear. [In 2006, the British Charly label issued a "50th Anniversary Special Edition" version of the Million Dollar Quartet
session as a two-disc set, but no new recordings from the historical singalong were unearthed (sorry, Johnny Cash's portion of the program is still missing). Instead, Charly included a bonus disc of period-appropriate Sun recordings from Presley, Lewis, Perkins, and (oh glorious irony) Cash. There are a few surprises -- some rare and unreleased sides from Cash (stripped-down versions of "You're My Baby" and "Belshazar") and Lewis (a great solo take of "That Lucky Old Sun" and a version of "The Marine Hymn" for rockabilly leathernecks everywhere). However, the audio quality is uneven (especially on the Presley numbers, which have generally sounded better in the past), and while the bonus disc is fun listening, it doesn't add much at all to the package.