We look at the story of Sam Phillips and the Million Dollar Quartet.
“One for the money, two for the show, three to get ready…”, as rock’n’roll is coming to our theatre, in the form of Million Dollar Quartet, the story of four iconic musicians and the man who brought them together for one amazing session.
The four musicians in question are Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, and the night was December 4, 1956, when all four played together at Sun Records in Memphis. The four musicians need very little introduction, but who was Sam Phillips, the man who brought them all together?
Samuel Cornelius Philips (who will be played by Jason Donovan in Million Dollar Quartet) was born in Alabama in 1923, to poor tenant farmers – so poor that the young Sam sometimes picked cotton alongside his parents. Listening to the songs sung by black workers in the same fields left a deep impression on young Sam, and helped cement his love of music.
Forced to abandon plans to go to college after his father’s death left the family in poverty, Sam worked a variety of jobs to make ends meet, before finding work with various radio stations. This led to him starting Sun Records, his own recording studio and record label. Sam was the first man to discover and record rock’n’roll artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. Although Carl is now probably the least known of the Million Dollar Quartet, he was the man who wrote and first recorded the song Blue Suede Shoes, and a major star in his day.
Two years after the foundation of Sun Records, Sam launched the career of Elvis Presley, who recorded his first song, That’s All Right, at the studio. This became a local hit, but it would take until 1956 for Elvis to have his first country-wide number one with Heartbreak Hotel. By December 1956, when Million Dollar Quartet is set, Elvis was a chart-topping artist, but also embroiled in controversy over the style of his music and – most famously – his dancing.
The way in which the Million Dollar Quartet came together illustrates how closely involved Sam Phillips was with the birth of rock’n’roll. Jerry Lee Lewis had been hired to play piano at a Carl Perkins recording session at Sun Records, when Elvis happened to stop by to talk to Phillips. Some accounts claim that Sam hit on the idea of calling Johnny Cash and asking him to join them, while other versions say Cash was in fact the first to arrive, and hung around in order to hear Perkins’ recording session. Either way, having all four under the same roof led to a jam session featuring the four musicians. During the session, Phillips issued a challenge to the four men, promising a cadillac to the first of them to achieve gold record sales (Carl Perkins went on to win).
Although music from the session wasn’t released officially until 1981, the next day, a local newspaper ran a story about the session, with the headline ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ – thus a legend was born.
Million Dollar Quartet: Tuesday 28 February – Saturday 4 March. Book here.