The session that inspired the musical "Million Dollar Quartet" happened purely by chance.
On Dec. 4, 1956, in Memphis' Sun Records, four of the creators of modern rock and country -- Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins -- came together to sing a few.
It started out as a Perkins session. He'd had Sun's first million-seller with his version of "Blue Suede Shoes," before suffering a car accident that would allow Presley to pull ahead -- even redoing "Blue Suede Shoes."
Perkins was an accomplished guitarist, and he already had a bassist and drummer for the session. But Sun Records owner/operator Sam Phillips, who was also producing the session, called in his newly signed singer/pianist Jerry Lee Lewis to fill out Perkins' combo's sound.
In the early afternoon, Presley, who had moved on to the RCA label and was an international star, stopped by Sun for a social visit. Some say Cash arrived later, although he always maintained he'd showed up first.
Pioneer recording engineer Cowboy Jack Clement was there, and said later he knew he had to roll tape with the stars in the room. Phillips also knew that he could not possibly buy this kind of free publicity, and called the Memphis Press-Scimitar to send someone over. The photographer snapped the now-famous shot of Presley seated at the piano, surrounded by the other three Sun stars.
Almost 50 tracks, some only a few seconds long, were captured that day, including hits already made, like "Don't Be Cruel" by Presley and "Crazy Arms" by Lewis. They also relied heavily on traditional country and gospel songs.
Lewis, Perkins and Presley can be heard distinctly singing on the sessions; Cash's voice is not as evident.
In 1997, Cash wrote in "Cash: The Autobiography: "I was the first to arrive and the last to leave, contrary to what has been written. But I was just there to watch Carl record, which he did until midafternoon, 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. Elvis wanted to hear songs Bill had written besides 'Blue Moon of Kentucky,' and I knew the whole repertoire."
As the four artists' legends grew, so did the reputation of the sessions -- and their importance in rock history. The truth is, those session were nothing more than four friends and business rivals jamming together on a winter afternoon.
Presley died in 1977, and Perkins in 1998. Cash passed away in 2003.
Lewis is still somewhere out there, playing his piano.
Sources: "Johnny Cash: The Autobiography" by Johnny Cash (Harper's, 1997), "Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll" by Martin Hawkins (St. Martin's Griffin, 1992), "Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story" by Nick Tosches (Dell, 1982), www.rockabillytennessee.com