The Million Dollar Quartet: A Legendary Jam Session

million dollar quartet
Million Dollar Quartet image over the Soda Fountain, 710 Union Avenue next to Sun Studio and serves as ticket and museum. Image by Chris Light on Wikimedia Commons.

What happens when four well-known and legendary performers in their own right come together by happenstance to jam at a recording studio? Well, you get what’s considered a seminal moment in rock and roll history known as The Million Dollar Quartet.

It just goes to show that some of the best things in life happen by surprise, and it not only gives us a one-time recording to enjoy but allows generations of fans to re-experience its stage tour around the United States.  

Here’s everything there is to know about The Million Dollar Quartet and its Broadway re-telling.

million dollar quartet broadway sign
Heading to our theatre on St Martin’s Lane to see Million Dollar Quartet at the Noel Coward Theatre, on our first night in London. Image by Elliot Brown on Wikimedia Commons.

Is Million Dollar Quartet a True Story?

Yes, it most certainly is.

What is the Million Dollar Quartet Broadway Show About?

The Million Dollar Quartet is based on an impromptu jam session that brought together the likes of four legendary performers in The Million Dollar Quartet are the “King of Rock ‘n Roll” Elvis Presley, “the Killer” Jerry Lee Lewis, the “Man in Black” Johnny Cash, and the “King of Rockabilly” Carl Perkins.  

The session included the young musicians recording multiple tracks, mainly Gospel songs that all four artists had grown up singing. 

Lewis played most of the piano during the session, with Elvis taking charge as the lead vocalist, with the other two mainly following Presley’s lead.

Some featured works during the session included “Blueberry Hill” and “Isle of Golden Dreams.”

The History of The Million-Dollar Quartet

The impromptu jam session that led to this legendary moment in music history was truly a chance encounter between the four artists.

Carl Perkins had come to Sun Records, along with his brothers and his drummer, W.S. Holland, to record new material. 

To help in the new version of “Matchbox” that Perkins had planned to record, the owner of Sun Records, Sam Phillips, decided to bring in Jerry Lee Lewis, who was newer and not well-known yet outside of Memphis, Tennessee, to fill out the sound as the pianist.

Later that afternoon, Elvis Presley, who was no longer with Sun Records, visited his former label. 

After listening to the playback of the morning session and finding it to be well done, he went into the studio, where the jam session soon began.

It’s unknown when exactly, but later in the jam session is when country-music artist Johnny Cash showed up, although, in his autobiography, Cash, the “Ring of Fire” singer insisted that he was first to be at the studio that day, having wanted to listen in on Perkin’s recording session.

We can all thank sound engineer Jack Clement for the rest. As

the four began to play, he reportedly said to himself, “I think I’d be remiss not to record this.”

Related: Johnny Cash’s Complete Story of Life and Death

elvis presley
Image from Shutterstock.

Why was it called The Million Dollar Quartet?

“The Million Dollar Quartet” was the work of a newspaper reporter, Bob Johnson, from the Memphis Press-Scimitar. Reportedly, Sun Records owner Sam Phillips called the newspaper to inform them what was happening.

His choice of headline was an estimated guess of what he believed the salaries of the four men combined would have been at the time.

Apparently, the world loved it because the name stuck.

When Were The Million Dollar Quartet Recordings Released?

The release of The Million Dollar Quartet recordings, including The Million Dollar Quartet vinyl version, was thanks due in large part to Shelby Singleton, who bought the label in 1969.

After going through the catalog of music, Singleton discovered the session and released it along with the British Charly label, to which he licensed much of the collection.

The first released recording of the famous jam session was in Europe in 1981. 

Three years later, it was followed up with more tracks under the title, The Complete Million Dollar Session. 

The recordings weren’t released in the United States until 1990 as Elvis Presley: The Million Dollar Quartet, seen as an homage to the late rock ‘n roll legend.

In 2006, RCA further capitalized on that, releasing a 50th-anniversary issue of the session, which Presley owned. 

The new edition included 12 minutes of previously unheard material.

Who Did Not Perform on The Million Dollar Quartet?

There have been many questions about whether Johnny Cash was really part of The Million Dollar Quartet. 

In reality, Cash never provided any lead vocals on the recording, so his presence isn’t so obviously known as the other three performers.

So, the answer is yes to the question, did Johnny Cash actually sing with the Million Dollar Quartet?

Johnny cash
Image from Shutterstock.

What was The Million Dollar Quartet, and Why was it Significant?

The Million Dollar Quartet was considered the “Mount Rushmore of Rock’ n Roll,” as the legendary recording session is maintained as a landmark point in the age of the beloved genre. 

It was also considered a genre milestone as the 20th-century world changed both in popular culture and mass media.  

Did Elvis Like Jerry Lee Lewis?

Despite the jam session that brought the two together, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis didn’t always see eye-to-eye. 

In fact, the two had a rivalry that lasted several decades due to their differences in style. 

After a while during the jam session, Elvis was the first to leave, with Johnny Cash later commenting in his autobiography that, once Lewis started pounding on the piano, “no one wanted to follow Jerry Lee, not even Elvis,” who was the biggest star at the time.

Despite this, they did respect each other in the end, especially in light of the question, what did Elvis say about Jerry Lee Lewis?

In a newspaper article published by Robert Johnson after a show featuring both immensely talented performers, Elvis reportedly said of Lewis: “That boy can go. I think he has a great future ahead of him. He has a different style, and the way he plays piano just gets inside of me.”

jerry lee lewis
Jerry Lee Lewis in 2006. Image from Shutterstock.

How Much Was Jerry Lee Lewis Worth When He Died?

When Jerry Lee Lewis died in October 2022, he was worth a staggering $10 million. Others have reported it to be quite a bit higher, estimating $15.4 million because of “The Killer’s” six-decade-long career, which included several hit songs that topped the charts in the world of rock ‘n roll and rhythm-and-blues.

In comparison with his fellow Million Dollar Quartet stars, Elvis had a net worth of around $5 million when he died in 1977. That translates to about $24 million today.

Carl Perkins was worth $7 million when he died in 1998, and When Johnny Cash died in 2003, he was worth an estimated $60 million.

Who was The Million Dollar Quartet after Elvis Died?

Even before Elvis’ untimely death in 1977, The Million Dollar Quartet never reunited for another performance. 

However, after Elvis died, the three remaining members did perform together a few times. 

The first was in 1977 when the trio sang “This Train is Bound for Glory” in tribute to their fellow member for the Johnny Cash Christmas Special. Roy Orbison, who is also a Sun Records artist, also joined them for the performance.

Other reunions of the three surviving members included the 1982 live album, The Survivors Live, which featured the three during Johnny Cash’s tour of Europe in 1981.

They also reunited in 1986 to record the Class of ’55 album alongside Roy Orbison, which was recorded at the original Memphis Recording Service building of the Sun studio.

Related: The Life and Music of Elvis Presley

million dollar quartet without Elvis
The Million Dollar Quartet Without Elvis: Photo of (from left) Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis from the 1977 Johnny Cash Christmas Special television program. Image by CBS television on Wikimedia Commons

The Million Dollar Quartet, the Stage Musical

The Million Dollar Quartet became such a legendary moment that it was turned into a stage musical in 2007 and was performed in theaters all over the United States.

The jukebox musical show, based on a book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, had its world premiere at Florida’s Seaside Music Theatre before moving to the Village Theatre in Issaquah, Washington.

The premiere in Washington broke records at the box office.

After Washington, it had a limited run in the fall of 2008 in Chicago. Then, it made its Broadway debut on April 11, 2010, giving 489 performances and 34 previews before shutting down production a little more than a year later, before opening again in an off-Broadway production.

The Broadway show was so popular that it was a nominee for three Tony Awards, to which Levi Kreis, who portrayed Jerry Lee Lewis, was the sole Tony Award winner for being the Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Kreis also won an Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical.

Other notable performers in the Broadway show included Hunter Foster as Sam Phillips, Robert Britton Lyons as Carl Perkins, Lance Guest as Johnny Cash, and Eddie Clendening as Elvis.

Who was the Girl in the Million Dollar Quartet?

In the Award-winning Broadway musical version of The Million Dollar Quartet, along with the four famous faces, there was another woman named Dyanne, who was introduced as Elvis’ girlfriend. 

In reality, Dyanne was Marilyn Evans, a chorus dancer whom the King of Rock ‘n Roll met in Las Vegas. The pair were dating at the time.

Dyanne has been portrayed by such legendary actresses as Kelly Lamont, Elizabeth Stanley, and Francesca Jackson.

The Musical Numbers

Fans of the four legendary artists won’t be disappointed as they’ll get to hear all of their favorite hits, including Elvis’ “Hound Dog,” Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” Perkins’ “Who Do You Love?,” Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” and so much more throughout the multi-piece repertoire, including the entire company opening the show with “Blue Suede Shoes.”

Move aside, Hairspray. Forget the 1960s. We’d rather be welcoming back the 1950s.

Related: The 17 Best Elvis Songs of All Time: His Legacy Lives On


Where is Million Dollar Quartet Playing in 2023?

Get your wallets ready. 

There are still a few tour dates left to see The Million Dollar Quartet live in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Carmel, Indiana. The final date is June 17, 2023, at 7:30 p.m. at The Palladium – Center for the Performing Arts, 355 W. City Center Drive in Carmel.

Be prepared to pay a pretty penny, though. Tickets cost between $84 and $496.

It will be worth the money, according to fan reviews on Ticketmaster.

“This was an excellent presentation – fun, upbeat, completely a blast! The cast was full of excitement,” said one reviewer. “I laughed and sang along the whole time, and I ended up on my feet with the rest of the audience, clapping and dancing. If you want a fun and lighthearted night out, go see Million Dollar Quartet!”

You better get your tickets now.

Is One Night in Memphis the Same as Million Dollar Quartet?

One Night in Memphis: Presley, Perkins, Lewis & Cash is a tribute to the Sun Records artists responsible for making The Million Dollar Quartet. Created and directed by John Mueller, the show stars some of the original members of the Broadway show.

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Written by Erik Ritland

Erik Ritland is a songwriter, musician, journalist, and podcaster based in Nashville, Tennessee. He’s released over a dozen albums since 2002, most recently Old Dog Almost Gone (2021), the first-ever multimedia album, and his latest collection of all original material, A Scientific Search (2020). During his 15+ years as a music journalist, Erik has written hundreds of articles for Music in Minnesota, Something Else Reviews, his own blog Rambling On, and more. In addition to continuing his music career, Erik currently runs The Cosmic American, a music journalism website, and is the editor of Music in Minnesota.


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