Monday, February 11, 2019

The Million Dollar Quartet

So this past weekend six friends and I made a journey (some may even call it a pilgrimage) to Memphis. It was the first visit there for maybe half of us. Ostensibly we traveled there on annual
weekend trek to see a college basketball game in a new location (we are all University of Connecticut fans and graduates, and each year we try and hit a cool new city and watch a game there). So that was our official reason.

But our real reason was, well, Memphis. This was a city we needed to see. Either for the first time or very eagerly once again.

We needed to see the Lorraine Motel and the Civil Rights Museum, which is breathtakingly and heartbreakingly awesome. In the truest sense of that word.

We needed to see Graceland. Because, well, just because.

We needed to see the bright lights of Beale Street and walk in the tracks of BB and Junior and the Wolf and so many others.

We needed to get some great damn southern cooking.

And we needed to see this place. Which, you know, holds as strong an ownership claim on the title of "The Birthplace of Rock-n-Roll" as any place could or should:

So we did. And just basically kinda lapped up the all-too-brief but so, SO good 50-minute tour that very comprehensively covered the history of Sun Studio.  And culminated in us standing in the actual studio itself. 

You know, the studio. The place where a few people got their start. Like Jackie Brenston and his  Delta Cats with "Rocket 88" in 1951, which to some rock-n-roll authorities is THE first rock-n-roll song in history. And B.B. King. And Rufus Thomas. And the Howlin' Wolf. And a few others people/legends/icons whose names you may recognize.

Which brings me to this photo. Which I stood three feet away from as our tour wrapped up in the middle of that iconic studio.

That right there is the "Million Dollar Quartet," as it came to be known. Playing an impromptu jam session on December 4, 1956. And filling out what has to be on any short list of the Coolest Photos in Music History.

Let's take a quick look, shall we?

There at the left is the baby of the bunch, 21-year-old Jerry Lee Lewis, still quite a few months away from making it huge at Sun Studio with "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and, later, "Great Balls of Fire." Both of which would be recorded in this room.

Next to him at right is Carl Perkins, who was all of 24 in this photo and was actually in the studio that day to record a rather iconic "Matchbox." Oh yeah, and who gave Sun its first Number 1 hit with "Blue Suede Shoes" a year earlier.

On the far right and decidedly NOT dressed in black is the oldest of the bunch, a 24-year-old Johnny Cash, who had indeed had some success at that point, including "I Walk The Line," which was recorded (again) in this studio six months earlier.

And oh. Seated at the piano, there is Mr. Elvis Presley. A month shy of his 22nd birthday and already the biggest star Sun Studio (and, yeah, the world) would ever produce.

Four guys. Jamming quite by chance one day. The Million Dollar Quartet.

And just look at that photo! Look at how young they all are!

Look at how attentive and how, believe it or not, humble Jerry Lee looks. As he was the only one who at the time of this photo hadn't hit it huge yet. (Soon enough, for better and for worse, he would develop a confidence he would never, ever lose).

Look at how steady and confident Carl looks. Despite his fellow royalty around him.

Look at how focused Johnny is, and how almost shy he seems. Yet still exuding a cool that very few artists ever could.

And look at Elvis. Man. That is a look of reverence he is giving to Mr. Perkins, and there is also some serious joy in his face. Perhaps the joy of making music with the best of the best of the best? Even though it's only for one magical day?

Could any of them have possibly known of what was to come? Even Elvis, who was at that point a worldwide star? The four men around that piano did not total a collective 100 years of age at the time of that photo, yet the influence they would have on rock-n-roll and music in general and culture and on America itself is literally immeasurable. Could they have known? Is there anything in this picture that indicates they may have known? Elvis' look? Johnny's cool detachment? Carl's knowing pose? Jerry Lee's attentiveness? Any of it? All of it?

Who knows. All we do know is this happened. On December 4, 1956 at Sun Studio on Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee. And maybe that's enough.

Because 62 years later and counting, it still lives and breathes. At Sun Studio, and in the all the music it would inspire for decades to come. 

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