The Million Dollar Quartet

MEMPHIS PRESS-SCIMITAR, Wednesday, December 5, 1956


MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET - The only thing predictable about Elvis is that he's unpredictable. Yesterday Carl (Blue Suede Shoes) Perkins was cutting some new records at Sam Phillips' Sun Record studio on Union at Marshall. Elvis dropped in. So did Johnny Cash. Jerry Lee Lewis was already there. Elvis headed for the piano, and an old-fashioned barrelhouse session with barbershop harmony resulted. In the picture are Sun's new discovery, Jerry Lee Lewis, at the left, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cass and the virtuoso at the little 88 is Elvis. That lovely creature sitting on top of the piano? That's Marilyn Evans, 19, who dances at the New Frontier in Las Vegas. She is Elvis' house guest thru Friday. More about this get together in Robert Johnson's TV News and Views, Page 37.

--Press-Scimitar Staff Photo by George Pierce

TV News and Views
Press-Scimitar Staff Writer

. . .His purpose in coming to Memphis is to investigate how this tremendously important work can be spread to other sections of the country.
You can get an idea of what Streamlined Reading is about by watching Channel 10 at 8 tonight. It's not entertainment. It is teaching. And it is wonderful in concept and execution.

On Ted Mack Show
Billy Boren, 19, of Verona, Miss., won our Mid-South Fair's annual Youth Talent contest this fall, and Billy will be on the Ted Mack show on Channel 13 Sunday night. Billy is the younger brother of Charlie Boren, owner and manager of Radio WAMY in Amory, Miss.

TED MACKBOUND -- Our Mid-South Fair Talent Contest winner, Billy Boren of Verona, Miss., will be on the Ted Mack show Sunday.

Charlie was the first person ever to put Elvis Presley on the air. He used to have a station in Tupelo, and Elvis made his debut there singing in an amateur contest about 1945 or 1946. Didn't even have a guitar, then. If Charlie had a movie of the event, he could get rich.
But this is about Billy Boren.

* * *

He idolizes Elvis, but he sings a different type of music. He formerly attended Mississippi Southern, the Memphis State rival down in Hattiesburg, but got so many requests to sing here and there he has left school. He has worked as an announcer for the past three years on Charlie's station.

Send in a Vote
Listen to our local boy Sunday night, and send in a vote for him. we're really getting to be a musical center - everything from Elvis to Phineas Newborn to Marguerite Piazza, even tho did disown us on the Herb Shriner show last night. (Said New Orleans is her home town, which it was but isn't anymore. she's ours.)
I never had a better time than yesterday afternoon when I dropped in at Sam Phillips' Sun Record bedlam on Union at Marshall. It was what you might call a barrel-house of fun. Carl Perkins was in a recording session . . . and he has one that is going to hit as hard as "Blue Suede Shoes." We're trying to arrange an advance audition for you Memphis fans before the song is released in January. Johnny Cash dropped in. Jerry Lee Lewis was there, too, and then Elvis stopped by.
Elvis headed for the piano and started to Fats Domino it on "Blueberry Hill." The joint was really rocking before they got thru.
Elvis is high on Jerry Lee Lewis. "That boy can go," he said. "I think he has a great future ahead of him. He has a different style, and the way he plays piano just gets inside me."
Elvis debunked the newest rumor: "No I haven't bought 200 acres at Collierville," he said. "How do those stories get started?"
He talked earnestly about the Toledo incident. "I talked to that fellow for at least 15 minutes, trying to be nice to him and keep him from starting anything, but finally it just got out of hand."
I never saw the boy more likeable than he was just fooling around with these other fellows who have the same interests he does.
If Sam Phillips had been on his toes, he'd have turned the recorder on when that very unrehearsed but talented bunch got to cutting up on "Blueberry Hill" and a lot of other songs. That quartet could sell a million.

courtesy Memphis Public Library

This article was originally published in the Memphis Press Scimitar on December 5, 1956 and pertinent portions regarding events are reprinted here as written .

article added  August 14, 2013
promoted September 10, 2013

Some article Backstory

Carl Perkins (with Charlie Underwood's guitar), Elvis and Johnny Cash at Sun - Dec. 4, 1956
Photo courtesy David English

On December 4, 1956 Elvis made another impromptu visit to Sam's studio at 706 Union Ave. Having recently returned from Vegas with Marilyn Evans, a dancer from the New Frontier, in tow, they along with Cliff Gleaves happened upon a session with Carl Perkins that was just finishing up. Carl and his brothers Jay and Clayton with “Fluke" Holland on drums had recorded "Matchbox" among the sessions that day and Jerry Lee Lewis, a newcomer to Sun, had played piano on it. Sam, recognizing the publicity potential called Johnny Cash to come down and also the press.

What ensued was an informal jam session of what was dubbed by Robert Johnson the next day in the Press-Scimitar as the Million Dollar Quartet though for years it would be debated as to who participated, who was there and for how long. The biggest mystery to some was whether Johnny actually sang, though he's maintained in his biography that he did, and the identity of the girl, Marilyn Evans, who after 1957, was often cropped from several of the more famous photos.

Elvis, Johnny and Marilyn Evans at Sun - Dec. 4, 1956

Photos from 16 Magazine - May 1956

The photos show various of the participants, including Johnny Cash, posing with Charlie Underwood's Martin D-28, that according to Colin Escott was retrieved from the trunk of his car. He wrote that Cash, who had come with his wife Vivian, left almost immediately after the photo session, but Presley, Lewis, and Perkins sang for an hour or two.1 Photographer Jim Reid would later claim he was the one who took the photos though papers of the day say credit it as George Pierce.

Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins (with Charlie Underwood's guitar), Elvis and Johnny Cash at Sun - Dec. 4, 1956

Some accounts also differ as to who was actually responsible for the recordings. Peter Guralnick wrote almost from the start Sam had the tape recorder turned on. He was all set up for a session anyway, and he realized immediately that this could be an historic occasion. “I told Jack Clement [who was in the control room. too]. “Man. Let's just record this. This is the type of feel, and probably an occasion, that — who knows? — we may never have these people together again.' 2 Colin Escott wrote, using the microphone placements from the Perkins session, Phillips did a rough mix through the board, punched the RECORD button, then joined the melee on the studio floor.1

Smokey Joe Baugh, Elvis and Sam Phillips at Sun - Dec. 4, 1956
Photo courtesy FECC/otto

More recently Jack Clement was quoted as saying that Sam went next door to Taylor's restaurant. Carl Perkins was in the studio recording, but everything stopped when Elvis came in. Everybody just started swapping stories and picking out songs. And I remember thinking I would be remiss if I didn't record this. So I moved a few mics around and recorded what happened. Nobody paid any attention to the tapes for years and years. It was a long time before the record came out.3 It's not surprising since when Elvis had signed with RCA the year before a clause prohibited him willingly recording any performance outside of their agreement. Sam himself was quoted as saying the event was totally extemporaneous, everything was off mike and if it was on mike it was by accident. The recordings only surfaced after Shelby Singleton bought Sun in 1969 and the catalog was licensed for reissue in Europe. It has been available on record at least as early as 1981 and has been re-mastered and re-released several times since, the most recent being for the 50th anniversary in 2006.

Sam and Elvis in Sun's control room, with Charlie Underwood's guitar - Dec. 4, 1956
Photos courtesy Erik van den Berg and FECC/otto

Several years ago Escott co-wrote the musical, The Million Dollar Quartet, for Broadway. Unable to locate Marilyn Evans, her character's name was changed for legal reasons. When the play hit Chicago in 2008 the Tribune ran the story and Marilyn, now Marilyn Knowles-Riehl, saw it and contacted the Tribune. She explained that though she enjoyed the experience she was not a fan of the music and kept silent about it because she never sought the limelight. She had never heard the recordings until then and at least clarified the question as to whether she was the one on record requesting the song Farther Along. She wasn't. She did however recognize her voice as requesting End of the Road.4

Bob Johnson Sam, Elvis and UPI reporter Lee Soroka in Sun's control room - Dec. 4, 1956

As Colin Escott pointed out, the tapes from the "session" hold some of Elvis’ least-guarded moments on record. With the exception of a few stage-managed moments during the 1968 NBC-TV Special, the session represents the only time we catch Elvis talking unguardedly about music.1 According to one reviewer the musical makes it seem like there was a lot of rivalry between Johnny, Carl, Elvis, and Jerry Lee, but it doesn't come through on the recordings. Clement confirmed, it was all camaraderie. They were having a ball talking, jamming, and throwing songs at each other. They were all very warm toward each other.4 Obviously at ease, and at home, Elvis described seeing Billy Ward and his Dominoes four nights in a row while in Las Vegas and being floored by the singer [Jackie Wilson] and his rendition of Don't Be Cruel. He thought it was better than his own recording of the song written by Otis Blackwell and released the previous July.1

Bob Johnson, Sam, Elvis and UPI reporter Lee Soroka in Sun's control room - Dec. 4, 1956
Photo courtesy David English

Throughout the session people drifted in and out, the guitar is passed around, while Snearly Ranch Boys piano player and sometime session musician Smokey Joe Baugh contributes his gravelly comments and harmonies. You can hear comments by unidentified women and children, doors slamming, and musicians departing (the Perkins brothers exit fairly early in the proceedings), which leaves a clear Field for singers and piano pickers almost exclusively.2

Charlie Boren at WELO - ca.1955
Boren Family Photos courtesy Verona, MS Facebook

Afterwards, Sam copied Johnson's review of the occasion in the Press-Scimitar and distributed it as a note to deejays acknowledging their contributions for the popularity of the artists mentioned.2 The review however was only about half of Johnson's column that day which also contained elements of other coincidences and relevance in Elvis' history. Johnson mentioned Billy Boren, a local singer also from Tupelo who was to appear on the the Ted Mack show that evening and encouraged his readers to watch.

Graham Dawson and Charlie Boren of WELO, Elvis on far right at the Fair and Dairy Show in Tupelo - Oct. 3, 1945
Photo courtesy Lee County Courier

As Johnson mentioned, Billy was the younger brother of Charles Boren who at the time ran WAMY radio in Amory, Mississippi where just about a year earlier he promoted a show at the Armory that featured Elvis, Carl and Johnny. Prior to that he had been an announcer at WELO in Tupelo since 1945. It was station WELO that sponsored the contest at the fair on October 3, 1945 that Elvis sang Ol' Shep, a song Boren recommend Elvis not sing. He went home with 5th place.2

Charlie Boren and Elvis at the Fair and Dairy Show in Tupelo - Sep. 26, 1956
Boren Family Photos courtesy Verona, MS Facebook

They also used to host a Jamboree on Saturday afternoons at the station on Spring street where Elvis, and anyone else that wanted to, would sing on the radio, at times at Boren's insistence, accompanied on guitar by Carbell Lee (Mississippi Slim) Ausborn. Ausborn had a Saturday noon-time show of his own called Singin' and Pickin' Hillbilly that preceded the Jamboree and coincidentally was the cousin of Rod Brasfield, a country comedian who years later would tour on package shows with Elvis, Scotty, Bill and DJ.2

Billy Boren, Anita Wood and Kathryn Benander rehearse for a free concert in Overton Park show - Sep. 1956
Commercial Appeal file

Billy, originally from Verona, MS where Elvis' parents were married by a Justice of the Peace, graduated Tupelo High School in 1956 and had won the Youth talent contest at the Mid-South fair in Memphis in 1955. He is also a close friend of Anita Wood who had won the same contest in 1954. In September of 1956 they performed together at the Overton Park Shell in Memphis where Elvis, Scotty and Bill had debuted two years earlier. Anita, as most fans are aware began dating Elvis in 1957. Both Anita and Billy had hopes and made attempts at performing careers. She had a record on the ABC-Paramount label and made television appearances on the Andy Williams show and Jack Paar show.5

Billy Boren and Jerry Lee Lewis - ca. 1957
Boren Family Photos courtesy Verona, MS Facebook

Billy Boren as an announcer at WAMY in Amory, MS with Elvis' third album, Loving You - ca. 1957
Boren Family Photos courtesy Verona, MS Facebook

Initially he followed his brother Charlie into radio becoming a staff member at WTUP in Tupelo, at the time the sister station to WELO, but opted for a professional career as an entertainer. Billy became a three-time winner of the Ted Mack show. In 1959 he emceed a show at the Shell in Memphis that featured many of the current and former Mid-South Fair talent contest winners including Anita and himself. He went on to work the night club circuit performing in Chicago, Miami, the west and even the Rebel Room at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, often working with big name stars like Joey Bishop and Gloria DeHaven.5

Elvis with Sarah Ann Patterson (on right) in Tupelo with Billy Boren and Anita Wood (out of image) behind him - Sept 27, 1957
Photo courtesy Sara Ann Patterson, Roy Turner and Anthony Stuchbury

Billy during one of his appearances on the Ted Mack show
Boren Family Photos courtesy Verona, MS Facebook

Though he released a record on a local label to regional acclaim and was reviewed favorably, a record deal with a major label apparently remained elusive. Regardless, he continued to perform and work in entertainment for most of his life, as a circus ring master and also doing public relations and promotion work. Back in Verona, he married and raised a family, several of which inherited his singing talents and in the '80s they would at times perform as a unit.5 He now resides back in Verona, and I'm told, still sings.

Billy Boren, as emcee, with family Wayne Newton and others at the Mid-South Fair in 1969
Boren Family Photos courtesy Verona, MS Facebook

As for the Million Dollar Quartet, Jerry Lee is now the last "man" standing. That story has been told in much more detail elsewhere and the musical is still having a successful run.

Marilyn (Evens) Knowles-Riehl with the cast of 'Million Dollar Quartet' - April 8, 2011
Photo by Bryan Derballa for the Wall Street Journal

section added September 10, 2013

1 according to or excerpt from Good Rockin' Tonight by Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins
2 according to or excerpt from Last Train to Memphis by Peter Guralnick
3 excerpt from Million Dollar Interview: Talking to Cowboy Jack Clement about Million Dollar Quartet by Chris Davis, February 17, 2012 courtesy The Memphis Flyer
4 according to Elvis Mystery Solved, by Jason George, the Chicago Tribune - November 11, 2008
5 according to varied articles including The Commercial Appeal - September 1959, Tupelo Daily Journal, June 1985 and the Memphis Press-Scimitar August 20, 1959 by Edwin Howard

The jacket Elvis wore with the Million Dollar Quartet from the collection of Larry Moss
Photo © James V. Roy


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