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A remarkable musical artifact
on 28 November 2002
This is a remarkable recording, offering not only a glimpse of the real Elvis Presley but standing as a musical artifact of the birth of rock and roll. I should point out that the Million Dollar Quartet is a bit of a misnomer; although Johnny Cash was present at one point, the couple of songs he supposedly sung on have never been found. What we have is an incredible jam session featuring Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins (plus an assortment of lesser known musicians). The date was December 4, 1956; the place was the legendary Sun Records studio in Memphis, Tennessee. Elvis Presley was already a superstar, Carl Perkins was struggling to reproduce the success he had found with Blue Suede Shoes a year earlier, and Jerry Lee Lewis was basically unknown, having just cut his first tracks a couple of weeks earlier. They start singing some gospel songs, but the session picks up steam from there and continues through a great variety of musical songs and styles, all of which offer first-hand insight into the advent of rockabilly music and its metamorphosis into good ol' rock and roll.
Elvis dominates this session, but Jerry Lee Lewis is also prominent throughout, which is pretty amazing considering the fact that he was still on the verge of success. Carl Perkins remains in the background, taking the lead only on the short song Keeper of the Key. Elvis' tremendous gospel singing comes through loud and clear on such staples as Just a Little Walk With Jesus, Peace in the Valley, and Down By the Riverside, and Jerry Lee's strong backup on these songs surprised me with its uniqueness and power. Soon the guys shift to bluegrass, giving us snippets of several Bill Monroe classics. Then the real fun begins. Elvis explains how the song Don't Forbid Me sat in his house for months without his knowing about it; although it was written for him, Pat Boone ended up recording it. When he sings a part of it for the guys, all of us fans can only think what could have been because it is a great song. Then the guys do some Chuck Berry songs, repeatedly coming back to the truly entertaining Brown Eyed Handsome Man. Jerry Lee just loves the line about Venus losing both of her arms while wrestling to win herself a brown eyed handsome man. The greatest part of this session, to my mind, is Elvis' imitation of an imitation of his Don't Be Cruel. He talk about seeing a member of Ward's Dominoes perform the song in Las Vegas; he was so impressed that he went back four straight nights just to hear it. That singer was Jackie Wilson, and Elvis' imitation of Jackie's imitation of his own song is really something special. Toward the end of the session, the magic seems to evaporate somewhat, with Jerry Lee Lewis taking the lead on several songs. His End of the Road is classic Jerry Lee singing and piano-playing. Unfortunately, when Jerry Lee sings Crazy Arms, he is too far away from the microphone to be heard clearly, but that is not to be unexpected in a jam session such as this. Throughout the session, there is almost constant chatter among the musicians and those gathered around listening to them.
This CD is basically a time capsule left to future generations containing primary source material on the birth of rock and roll. Elvis fans will absolutely love it, but anyone interested in the music of that era should find much insight and enjoyment of their own in listening to it. Few of these songs are complete; most of the time, the guys constantly move back and forth from one song to another, sometimes having trouble remembering all the words (which is not a bad thing); all told, this CD features almost one hour and seven minutes of musical magic. The sound quality is not all that bad, especially considering when the session took place; it's pretty amazing that this would ever have been recorded in the first place. Sometimes the music gods smile down on all of us and grant us a miraculous gift, and this may well be one of the greatest gifts of them all. Early on, you can hear Jerry Lee Lewis say, "Boy, this is fun!"--my sentiments exactly.