Johnny Cash Elvis Presley: The story behind their epic recording session

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Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley grew up in the same era, though Elvis’ star arguably shone brighter for a shorter period of time. They met as youngsters but only sang together at one recording session which became legendary. This is known as The Million Dollar Quartet, and included a couple of other big names.

During the famous Million Dollar Quartet, Johnny, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins recorded together in an impromptu jam session.

This took place on December 4, 1956, at the Sun Record Studios in Memphis, Tennessee.

At this time, Carl Perkins had become known for his song Blue Suede Shoes, which was subsequently more famously covered by Elvis.

Elvis was only 21-years-old at the time of this jam, but was the most famous of them all, having originally been a Sun Records artist before being signed by larger label RCA Victor.

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Johnny was only newly signed by Sun Records, as was Jerry Lee Lewis, who was brought in to play piano for Carl.

Johnny has said he joined the session in order to hear Carl, and Elvis was believed to have just arrived out of the blue for a visit to his old stomping ground.

Elvis listened to Carl and, on liking what he heard, went into the studio and the jam began, at which the engineer of the day said he would be ‘remiss’ not to record the session.

In the end, Elvis did not perform with Jerry Lee, instead leaving before the pianist started.

Johnny’s version of events slightly differed, however, as he claimed he was the first to record and last to leave.

He said in his autobiography: “I was just there to watch Carl record, which he did until mid-afternoon, when Elvis came in with his girlfriend.

“At that point the session stopped and we all started laughing and cutting up together. 

“Then Elvis sat down at the piano, and we started singing gospel songs we all knew, then some Bill Monroe songs…

“I forget exactly when Jerry Lee came in, but I remember clearly when Elvis invited him to take over at the piano and he launched into Vacation in Heaven. 

“That was the first time I ever heard Jerry Lee, and I was bowled over. 

“He was so great that the next thing I remember, Elvis and his girlfriend were gone…”

After the iconic image of the quartet performing was taken, Johnny seemed to imply the ‘girlfriend’ Elvis had with him had been removed from the image.

He also suggested there could have been some jealousy from Elvis towards Jerry Lee, the latter of whom has an ‘attitude.’

Johnny said: “If you’re wondering why Elvis left right after Jerry Lee got started, the answer is simple: nobody, not even Elvis, ever wanted to follow Jerry Lee. 

“And no, I don’t remember Jerry Lee ever saying anything disparaging about Elvis. 

“He didn’t have an attitude about Elvis especially; he just had an attitude.”

Johnny’s version of events suggests Elvis left to avoid being upstaged by a new pianist.

There have been some ‘reunions’ of this event, though none with the whole group in the same way.

A 1982 live album called The Survivors Life was released, featuring Johnny, Jerry Lee and Carl performing during Johnny’s 1981 European tour.

As well as that, there was a 1986 reunion of the surviving members in the original Memphis Recording Service building, this time also including former Sun Records artist Roy Orbison.

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