Picks and Pans Review: The Million Dollar Quartet

updated 05/28/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/28/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Elvis Presley

On Dec. 4, 1956, rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins was finishing up a session at the Sun Records studio in Memphis. Elvis Presley walked in as the playback was being heard and gave a thumbs up to Mr. "Blue Suede Shoes." Behind the piano was a young fireball named Jerry Lee Lewis, whom Sun founder Sam Phillips had recently recruited to fill out Perkins's dime-thin rockabilly sound.

As the story goes, Johnny Cash was also in town to cut a record, and Phillips called the young country star and asked him to drop on by. It turns out that Cash never actually sang on the resultant impromptu jam session, but in preserving the tradition of rock fables, someone wanted people to think this All-Star foursome made some magic in the studio that December afternoon, and the Million Dollar Quartet was born after the fact.

Even RCA Records acknowledges that Cash was only in attendance at a photo session, not as a performer. But even though this is the record of only a Million Dollar trio, there are some special moments. Presley's voice dominates almost every song. Perkins sings lead only once, on "Keeper of the Key." Of the 41 tracks, however, less than half are long enough to be considered full-fledged songs. Most are just twenty or thirty seconds of Elvis singing a line from a Bill Monroe song such as "I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling" or an old gospel traditional, as the others pick a harmony line and chime in. Everybody sounds in fine form, but it gets frustrating when the threesome starts getting into a groove and then just stops, only to engage in a little studio chatter and then launch into another abbreviated number.

When they do hang in there for an entire song, the melding of their voices and the excitement of just hearing these three idiosyncratic performers together is a rare treat. They shine on Homer Morris's "I Shall Not Be Moved" and on the longest of three versions of "Don't Be Cruel," Jerry Lee's boogie-woogie piano drives the song and gives it a honky-tonk feel. The trio's stripped-down rendition of "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" fills up a room better than any old Bourbon Street jazz band playing for the tourists.

The trio/ quartet business still seems like a cheat. But there's enough talent here to compensate for the deceptive advertising and the nagging stop-and-start singing. It's like a time traveler's glimpse of the beginnings of the new style of music that became rock and roll. (RCA)

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