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BACKTRACKING

A revealing '56 session with young lions of pop

Previously unreleased music is on a recording that arose after four key figures dropped by the Sun studio.

December 12, 2006|Robert Hilburn | Special to The Times

The first rock 'n' roll summit meeting occurred 50 years ago this month when Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins got together in Memphis' famed Sun Records studio -- and we finally can hear the whole thing.

Various versions of the session have been circulating for years in bootleg and authorized forms, some of them even titled "The Complete Million Dollar Quartet Session." But RCA/Sony's new "The Complete Million Dollar Quartet" claims it is the first truly complete one.

The new CD adds 12 minutes of previously unreleased music to RCA's original 67-minute version, which was released on CD in 1990, and finally puts the music in the original sequence. The biggest treat -- and surprise -- in the additional music: Elvis and the others jamming on instrumental versions of "Jingle Bells" and "White Christmas."

**

Various Artists

"The Complete Million Dollar Quartet"

(RCA/Sony)

The back story: Presley started with Sun Records in 1954, but didn't become a national sensation until releasing "Heartbreak Hotel" on RCA two years later. Perkins, whose "Blue Suede Shoes" had been a Top 10 hit, was in the Sun studio on Dec. 4, 1956, when Presley happened by. Cash, who had already released "Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk the Line" on Sun, also was on hand, along with Lewis, who was playing piano on the Perkins session.

Eager for publicity, Sun founder Sam Phillips phoned the Memphis Press-Scimitar newspaper, asking it to send a photographer to get a photo of Presley with his new stars. The photo appeared the next day, but it would be years before any of the music ever surfaced for rock fans to hear.

The first thing we learned from the bootlegs was that the "Million Dollar Quartet" was really a $750,000 trio. The newspaper article accompanying the photo noted that Cash sang "Blueberry Hill" with the others, but neither Cash's voice nor "Blueberry Hill" has ever surfaced on albums drawn from the session. So it's generally assumed that Cash left before the session really got going and Phillips turned on a tape recorder.

Still, "Million Dollar Quartet" offers a wonderfully revealing glimpse into the musical instincts of these extraordinary rock figures. Taking turns on lead vocal, Presley, Perkins and Lewis went through some country tunes, some Chuck Berry numbers, even some Presley hits. But the focus was on gospel, including "Just a Little Talk With Jesus."

What's new: The opening seven-plus minutes of this single disc was previously unreleased. When the tape starts, the musicians appear to just be jamming, but they soon go into an instrumental version of "Love Me Tender," followed by "Jingle Bells" and "White Christmas." They follow with another unreleased track: Elvis singing the bluesy "Reconsider Baby," the Lowell Fulson song that Presley later recorded for RCA.

Through the entire album, there is a sense of experimentation and wonder that underscores just how young these rock 'n' roll giants were at the time. Presley and Lewis were both 21, with Perkins the old man of the group at 24.

Until someone discovers another tape in Shelby Singleton's Sun warehouse in Nashville, this version stands as the definitive one, and it is a priceless piece of American pop culture.

**

Jerry Lee Lewis

"A Half Century of Hits"

(Time Life)

One of the photos in this boxed set is also on the cover of "The Complete Million Dollar Quartet." That album's liner notes tell us that Lewis' first Sun single had been released just days before, so he was nowhere near as famous as the others. Still, Colin Escott writes, "Lewis took the lead whenever he could and later asserted that Elvis had come to Sun especially to meet him." Escott rejects Lewis' contention, but notes that Elvis did tell the newspaper reporter, "That boy can play."

Lewis sure can play -- and sing, and what makes this three-disc set especially valuable is that it focuses as much on Lewis' country side as his rock side. Some pop fans may have been surprised to see so many country artists joining Lewis on his recent duets album, "Last Man Standing," but Lewis' country recordings are as inspired as his rock sessions. The passion in Lewis' vocals is as rich in such country numbers as "Another Place, Another Time" as on "Great Balls of Fire."

**

Jack Nitzsche

"Hard Workin' Man: The Jack Nitzsche Story Volume 2"

(Ace)

The first career retrospective of the brilliant arranger-producer stirred so much interest last year that London-based Ace Records is issuing a second volume, a 26-track disc that includes six previously unreleased recordings. Nitzsche, who arranged such classic singles as Ike & Tina Turner's "River Deep, Mountain High," worked with a wide variety of artists and producers. This set includes such gems as a Captain Beefheart vocal on a tune Nitzsche co-wrote and arranged for a Paul Schrader film; the Everly Brothers' treatment (arranged by Nitzsche) of Neil Young's "Mr. Soul" and the Monkees' psychedelic epic, "Porpoise Song" (also arranged by Nitzsche). The music is endlessly fascinating, with every track having some intriguing twist to remind you that Nitzsche, who died in 2000 of cardiac arrest at age 63, was at work.

*

Backtracking, a biweekly feature, highlights CD reissues with special attention to artists or albums deserving greater attention than they received originally.

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