The modest storefront recording studio at 760 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee, played an outsize role in rock-and-roll history. And of the many historic moments that occurred there, none is more famous than the impromptu jam session by four young rock-and-roll giants that took place on this day in 1956—a session enshrined in rock-and-roll legend as the one-and-only gathering of the “Million Dollar Quartet.”
The studio at 760 Union was run by Sam Phillips, the legendary producer whose Sun Records had launched Elvis Presley on his path toward stardom two years earlier with the release of his first single, “It’s Alright Mama” (1954). Phillips’ decision to sell Presley’s contract to RCA Victor in 1955 for only $35,000 is easy to question in retrospect, but it provided Sun Records with the operating capital it needed in order to record and promote the parade of future stars who had descended on Memphis hoping to follow in Elvis’ footsteps.
Among those stars was Carl Perkins, the rockabilly legend who was in the studio on December 4, 1956, to record a follow-up to his smash hit from earlier that year: “Blue Suede Shoes.” Hanging out in the booth was Perkins’ good friend Johnny Cash, already a star in his own right after his breakthrough hits, “Folsom Prison Blues” (1955) and “I Walk The Line” (1956). And playing piano for a $15 session fee was the brash, wild, but not-yet-famous Jerry Lee Lewis, whose career-making Sun single “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” was set for release just a few weeks later. Four songs into Perkins’ session, all work came to an end with the arrival of an unexpected drop-in guest: Elvis Presley himself.
While recording engineer Jack Clement ran a tape that would not be discovered for more than 20 years, Sam Phillips—ever the promoter—had the presence of mind to summon a photographer from the local paper to capture images of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins gathered around a piano singing the kind of music they’d all grown up on: gospel. The caption under the photo that ran in the next day’s Memphis Press-Scimitar was “Million Dollar Quartet.” The label quickly caught on among rock-and-roll fans who would not actually get the chance to hear the recording made on this day in 1956 until 1981, when the first portions of the lost tapes were discovered and released.