Sam Philips introduces the audience to his blossoming recording business, Sun Records, in Memphis Tennessee. He recounts the very special night that made rock and roll history.
Sam is hosting a recording session for Carl Perkins, original recording star of “Blue Suede Shoes.” Sam is pairing him with an upstart and unknown pianist, Jerry Lee Lewis, in an attempt to revitalize his career. Carl has brought with him his brother, a bassist, and a drummer. Sam tells the story of how he originally found and developed Perkins’ career, and how Jerry Lee Lewis proved himself on the piano to be Sun’s next big hit. Lewis shows off his skills, introducing himself with the number “Real Wild Child.” The four of them work on the new song, “Matchbox.” Reminding Lewis that guitar is king, Carl jams out on “Who Do You Love?” The piano and guitar sounds soon begin to mesh in a new style.
Johnny Cash arrives at Sun to talk to Sam about his recording contract. He is clearly uncomfortable finding Sam already occupied, but Sam insists he come in and join in on their session. Sam tells the story of how he originally met Johnny, and showcases him singing “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Legendary celebrity singer Elvis Presley, who got his start with Sun, stops by the studio. He has just had a flop of a run in Vegas, but has catapulted to stardom as a teen heartthrob and the next generation of rock and roll. Sam tells the audience that in order to keep Sun afloat, he had to sell Presley’s contract before he became a big star. Elvis has brought along his girlfriend, a singer named Dyanne. She immediately and unwelcomingly catches the eye of Jerry Lee Lewis. Elvis asks Dyanne to sing for fun, and the musicians jam on the number “Fever.”
The musicians all regale in the success Elvis has found, and he sings “Memories Are Made of This.” He then kicks off a jam session with “That’s All Right” and the group launches into “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” which Jerry Lewis tries to make all about him. The quartet reminisces about the good times of making music, reminding each other of the power of music before the pressures of the business set in. Recalling their Southern heritage, they sing “Down by the Riverside” and enjoy the music that inspired them to perform for others.
The other musicians ask Johnny to sing one of his hits. He performs “Sixteen Tons.” Perkins joins in with “My Babe,” and the two sing their songs as a duet. Sam attempts to re-sign Johnny Cash to a new contract, unaware Johnny has already made a deal with Columbia Records. Sam reminds Johnny and the audience that it was he who discovered Cash and catapulted him to stardom.
Sam senses that his leadership of these musicians is coming to an end. The group continues to play together, beginning to acknowledge that they will go their separate ways. Johnny Cash starts off with his multi-octave hit, “I Walk the Line,” followed by the group’s “I Hear You Knockin'” led by Dyanne, and “Party (Let’s Have a Party).” Elvis asks if the others know an older song to perform together, and refreshing an older Pat Boone hit, sings “Long Tall Sally.”
Before the group says their goodbyes, they sing “Peace in the Valley.” In the final moments of the evening, a historic photo is recreated and snapped of the group gathering around the piano, immortalizing the quartet in music history.
As a musical encore, the group returns to stage to present a medley of greatest hits: “Great Balls of Fire,” “Down by the Riverside,” “Hound Dog,” “Riders in the Sky,” “See You Later, Alligator,” and “Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On.”
Million Dollar Quartet guide sections