ELVIS PRESLEY, JERRY LEE LEWIS, CARL PERKINS AND JOHNNY CASH GOT TOGETHER FOR A RECORDING SESSION IN 1956 EXACTLY ONE YEAR AFTER PERKINS WAS INSPIRED TO WRITE THE HIT SONG “BLUE SUEDE SHOES.” THIS ONE AND ONLY RECORDING BECAME KNOWN AS THE MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET.
December 4, 2013 · by Carl Leonard
In the fall of 1955, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and singer songwriter Carl Perkins toured the South as part of what was known as Louisiana Hayride acts.
Johnny Cash told Carl Perkins a story of a black airman whom he had once met while serving in the military in Germany. The black man had referred to his military regulation shoes as “blue suede” shoes. Johnny Cash suggested that Carl write a song about the shoes.
Carl Perkins replied, “I don’t know anything about shoes. How can I write a song about shoes?”
Soon after this tour, Elvis Presley left Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio’s for a larger opportunity with RCA in November of 1955.
Then on December 4, 1955, Carl Perkins was performing at a dance when he noticed a young dance couple near the stage arguing between songs. Carl Perkins heard the guy yell in a stern, forceful voice “Uh-uh, don’t step on my suedes!” Carl looked down and noted that the guy was wearing blue suede shoes and one had a scuff mark left by the girls shoe during the previous dance song.
Carl thought, “Good gracious, a pretty little thing like that and all he can think about is his blue suede shoes?”
Later that night, Carl Perkins began working on a song based on the incident.
His first thought was to frame it with a nursery rhyme. He considered, and quickly discarded “Little Jack Horner…” and “See a spider going up the wall…”, then settled on “One for the money…” Leaving his bed and working with his Les Paul guitar, he started with an A chord. After playing five chords while singing “Well, it’s one for the money… Two for the show… Three to get ready… Now go, man, go!” he broke into a boogie rhythm.
Carl quickly grabbed a brown paper potato sack and wrote the song down, writing the title out as “Blue Swade; ” “S-W-A-D-E – I couldn’t even spell it right,” he would later admit.
Then, according to Perkins, he finished writing the song “Blue Suede Shoes” on December 17, 1955 incorporating elements of blues, country, and pop music of the time.
Carl then recorded the new rockabilly (rock and roll) song Blue Suede Shoes on December 19, 1955 at record producer Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee.
In the fall of 1955, Elvis Presley had left Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio label and moved over to RCA.
After Perkins recorded Blue Suede Shoes, Phillips told Carl, “Perkins, you’re my rockabilly cat now” indicating that Perkins could take over where Elvis had left off. Ever since then, Carl Perkins has been known as “the King of Rockabilly.” Phillips released the song on January 1, 1956.
However at first, in Jackson, Tennessee where Carl Perkins lived as well as in Memphis, radio stations were playing Perkins flip side song, “Honey Don’t.” Before long though, Blue Suede Shoes became the side of choice throughout the South and Southwest.
By February 11, 1956, the song became the No. 2 single on Memphis charts, and hit number one the next week, remaining there for the next 3 months.
On March 17, 1956, Carl Perkins became the first country recording artist to also reach the number three spot on the rhythm & blues charts.
Then on March 22, 1956, while in route to New York City for an appearance on the Perry Como television show, Carl Perkins and his band members were involved in a serious automobile accident shortly before sunrise in Dover, Delaware. Stuart Pinkham was driving the Perkins Brothers Band when he ran into the back of a pick-up truck. The band’s vehicle went into a ditch of water about a foot deep, resulting with Carl Perkins lying face down in the water. Drummer Holland rolled Carl over, saving him from drowning. The driver of the pick-up truck, Thomas Phillips, a 40 year old farmer, died when he was thrown into the steering wheel.
Carl’s brother Jay had a fractured neck along with severe internal injuries that would later take his life. Carl remained unconscious for an entire day, ending up suffering three fractured vertebrae in his neck, a severe concussion, a broken collar bone, and several lacerations.
On March 23, 1956, Carl Perkins received a telegram from Elvis Presley wishing him a speedy recovery.
While Carl Perkins recuperated from the accident, “Blue Suede Shoes” rose to number one on most pop, R&B, and country regional charts. It also held the number two position on the Billboard Hot 100 and country charts.
Ironically, Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” held the number one position on the pop and country charts, while “Shoes” did better than “Heartbreak” on the R&B charts.
By mid-April of 1956, more than one million copies of “Shoes” had been sold, earning Carl Perkins a Gold Record. “Blue Suede Shoes” was the first million selling country song to cross over to both rhythm and blues and pop charts.
Elvis Presley's version
Recording cover versions of songs was standard practice during the 1940s and 1950s, and “Blue Suede Shoes” was one of the first tunes RCA wanted their new performer, Elvis Presley, to record. Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel and Carl Perkins Blue Suede Shoes were rising on the charts at roughly the same time. RCA thought its superior distribution and radio contracts could help them steal a hit record out from under Sam Phillips and Carl Perkins.
After Carl Perkins had the accident, Elvis Presley, who knew Carl Perkins from his days with Phillips and Sun Records, gave in to pressure from RCA and recorded his version of Perkins song Blue Suede Shoes featuring two guitar solos by Scotty Moore, along with Bill Black on bass, and D.J. Fontana on drums. According to Scotty Moore, when Elvis Presley’s version of the song was recorded, “We just went in there and started playing, just winged it. Just followed however Elvis felt.” Elvis Presley then performed his version of the song on national television on the Milton Berle Show on April 3, 1956.
While still recuperating in his hometown of Jackson, Tennessee Carl Perkins watched Elvis perform Blue Suede Shoes on the Milton Berle Show that night.
Carl Perkins would return to live performances on April 21, 1956.
On July 1, 1956 Steve Allen introduced Elvis Presley on The Steve Allen Show, and Presley, appearing in formal evening wear, stated “I think that I have on something tonight that’s not quite right for evening wear.” Allen asked, “What’s that, Elvis?” “Blue suede shoes” was the answer, as he lifted his left foot to show the audience.
Later, Elvis Presley was quoted as saying that he recorded the song to help out Carl Perkins after his accident. “Elvis wasn’t really thinking at that time that it was going to make money for Carl; he was doing it as more of a tribute type thing. Of course Carl was glad he did. It really helped as his record started going down.”
“Blue Suede Shoes” was the first song on the groundbreaking album Elvis Presley.
RCA released two other records with “Blue Suede Shoes” the same month: one an Extended Play with four songs, and a 2x extended play version with eight songs. RCA released the Presley version as a single on September 8, 1956. This single only reached No. 20, whereas the Perkins version had topped the charts.
“Million Dollar Quartet”
Since his accident, Carl Perkins had recorded a number of songs with Sam Phillips at Sun Studio’s including the hit “Your True Love.”
After recording “Your True Love”, Carl Perkins’ father Buck suggested that he do “Match Box Blues”. Buck knew only a few lines from the song, either from a 1927 recording by Blind Lemon Jefferson, or from the version by country musicians The Shelton Brothers (who recorded the song twice in the 1930s, and again in 1947).
As Carl Perkins sang the few words his father had suggested, Jerry Lee Lewis, who was at that time a session piano player at Sun Studios, began a restrained boogie-woogie riff. Carl began picking out a melody on the guitar and improvised on the lyrics. Thus, on Tuesday December 4, 1956, exactly one year after Carl Perkins had witnessed the couple arguing over the guy’s suede shoes, he headed once more to Sun Studio in Memphis to record the song called “Matchbox”.
Sun recording artist Johnny Cash, and session pianist Jerry Lee Lewis were already at the studio visiting with Sam Phillips when Carl Perkins arrived. Johnny Cash would later write in his autobiography that he had been the first to arrive at Sun Studio that day because he wanted to listen in on Carl Perkins recording session. (Other stories tell us that it was Sam who phoned Johnny and ask him to participate the impromptu jam session already started with Jerry, Carl and Elvis. Johnny was busy running errands but promised to drop by, you can hear him slammimg the door while entering the small studio).
Later that day, 21 year old Elvis Presley and girlfriend Marilyn Evans dropped by the studio to see Carl Perkins.
After chatting with Sam in the control room, Elvis Presley listened to the playback of Perkins’ session, which he pronounced to be good.
Then Elvis went out into the studio to chat with Carl and Jerry Lee Lewis. A short time later they were joined in the studio by Johnny Cash.
As the day progressed, Carl Perkins, Elvis, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis began spontaneously singing gospel, country, and rhythm-and-blues songs while a tape rolled. The impromptu jam session seems to have happened by pure chance.
Soon Elvis was pounding away on the piano as the four of them randomly sang songs.
Jack Clement was handling engineering in the studio that day and remembers saying to himself, “I think I’d be remiss not to record this” and so he did. During the random jam session, Sam Phillips decided to call a local newspaper (the Memphis Press-Scimitar) and invite the paper’s entertainment editor Bob Johnson over to the studio. Bob Johnson showed up soon thereafter along with UPI representative Leo Soroca and photographer George Pierce.
December 4, 1956. [L to R] Robert 'Bob" Johnson, Sam Phillips, Elvis Presley and Leo Soroka at Sun Recording Studio.
The following day, an article, written by Johnson about the session, was published in the Memphis Press-Scimitar under the title “Million Dollar Quartet.“ The article contained the now-famous photograph of Presley seated at the piano surrounded by Lewis, Perkins and Cash (the uncropped version of the photo also includes Elvis’ girlfriend Evans, seated atop the piano). Peter Gurlanick gave her some credibility when he mentioned her in his 1994 Elvis biography. First, of Elvis’ November 1956 vacation in Las Vegas, Guralnick wrote, “He stayed at the New Frontier with his cousin Gene and attended all the shows. At the outset of his visit he dated Marilyn Evans, a dancer at the New Frontier, and invited her to come see him in Memphis in December.” Apparently, Miss Evans accepted Elvis’ invitation, as Guralnick claims she was in the car with Elvis a month later when he pulled up to Sun Studio in Memphis for the historic jam session.
After running through a number of songs, Elvis and girlfriend Evans slipped out as Jerry Lee took over on the piano.
After that day, Matchbox was released on February 11, 1957 and became one of Carl Perkins’ best known recordings and today is considered a rockabilly classic.
The “Million Dollar Quartet” jam session and the recording itself were soon forgotten.
Then in 1969, Shelby Singleton bought Sun Records and began browsing through more than 10,000 hours of studio tape.
As a result of this search, the session recording came to light and seventeen tracks were released in Europe in 1981 as “The Million Dollar Quartet.”
A few years later more tracks were discovered and released as The Complete Million Dollar Session. Then in 1990 the recordings were released on CD in the United States titled, Elvis Presley – The Million Dollar Quartet.
Carl Perkins died January 19, 1998 in Jackson, Tennessee at the age of 65.
A 2006 50th anniversary issue of the session was released on RCA, containing approximately twelve minutes of previously unavailable material and placing the titles in the original recorded sequence.
The final released albums contain 46 musical tracks, most of which are incomplete and are interspersed with chatter between the participants.
The recordings are not pristine, well rehearsed studio recordings, which were meant for commercial release, but rather the sound of a group of friends, who are gathered together to play old favorites and share the pleasure of making music together.
Watch Carl's 1997 last live concert here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a52ao4YWw4o&t=2783s