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Million Dollar Girl Mystery Solved

By Chicago Tribune/ Jason George, November 11, 2008 | Other
The whereabouts of Presley's girlfriend who was at the world's first superstar jam session went unknown for decades. Until now.

Marilyn Knowles-Riehl (left) is the mystery woman seated on the piano in the Million Dollar Quartet photo (right) from 1956. She was Elvis' girlfriend at the time and was there in Sun Studios at the legendary 1956 jam session of Jerry Lee Lewis (from left), Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. In fact, her voice is heard on the historic recording. (Tribune photo by Jason George/Photo from Michael Ochs Archives)

On December 4, 1956, Marilyn Evans entered--and exited--rock 'n' roll history. That was the day Elvis Presley stopped by Memphis' Sun Studio and recorded an impromptu session with Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Historians have long believed Evans was there too because she was dating Presley then and a voice assumed to be hers appears on the recording. Also, a local newspaper photographer captured an image of the brunet alongside the famous foursome, which the paper dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet.

"That lovely creature sitting on top of the piano," the caption for the photo read in the next day's newspaper, is "Marilyn Evans, who dances at the New Frontier in Las Vegas. She is Elvis' house guest thru Friday."

Unlike some other Elvis exes, Evans didn't make a career out of her companionship with The King, and Elvis enthusiasts have long wondered what happened to her after her week in Memphis. Colin Escott, a music historian and co-author of the play "Million Dollar Quartet," now playing at Chicago's Apollo Theater, has called her the "the least known of Elvis' girlfriends," which was true.

Evans' father had died when she was in high school, but to head off any trouble she wrote her mother a letter that began, "Don't flip, mama, but I've become acquainted with Elvis Presley."

Momma did flip, a little; that is, until Evans put the young star on the phone.

"He seems like a very nice person," her mom, L.E. Evans, informed The Fresno Bee in December 1956, after word of the relationship leaked. "Elvis told Marilyn he likes her because she doesn't act like a show girl, because she's real."

Like Evans, Elvis too was performing at the New Frontier--his first Vegas engagement--but when he left, the couple kept in touch by telephone. Then one day, he called Evans and asked her to come visit and stay at his Memphis home.

She said yes.

And so, 52 years later, what does she remember most about the house? "I remember that phone just rang and nobody answered, which was odd." In Memphis, Elvis and Evans spent their days riding motorcycles, going out to eat and watching rented movies at Elvis' house, a luxury the girl from Fresno could hardly believe.

"He was relaxed. He was comfortable there," Knowles-Riehl recalled. And at night she slept ...

"... not with him."

"He was extremely honorable. He was young; I was young."

On Dec. 4, 1956, the couple, along with some of Elvis' friends, cruised around Memphis, as usual. But on this day Elvis stopped at Sun, where he had made his first record only three years prior. It was there, over the next few hours, that fate (and a tape recorder) would allow a rare glimpse of the musical passions of these four future legends, as they jammed on gospel, country and blues. It was a seminal session of rock 'n' roll's origins ... and one that Knowles-Riehl barely recalls.

"I remember that outfit I was wearing was all wool," she said with a shrug of apology. "A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then."

The fact that the session meant so little to her might help explain why she said she felt fine when the relationship faded a few weeks later.

"I always preferred classical music," she explained. "We were just into different things, not that one's better than the other."

"It was great, I loved it, it was terrifically exciting and wonderful, but I had other things I wanted to do," said Knowles-Riehl who, the next year, began attending the University of Utah.

Asked why she never broadcast her brush with stardom, Knowles-Riehl said she never thought it among her life's highlights. Instead she prefers to gush about her two husbands--her first died--her son and a dancing career that includes 13 years as the director of the Fresno Ballet.

"It's like people whose high point of their life is their senior prom," she explained. "My senior prom was good, but a lot of stuff has happened that's been great since then." Such as ...

"When it's not driving me crazy, I enjoy genealogy," said Knowles-Riehl, who divides her time between Carmel, Calif., and Salt Lake City.

She also continues to dance--thanks to the fitness of a 40-year-old-- and she runs her own belly dancing troupe.

"It's pretty much the opposite of all my training, but I love it," she said. Until last week, Knowles-Riehl had never listened to the recording session from that day in Memphis. But when she did, she quickly nixed the popular theory that she's the one who requested the song "Farther Along."

"That's not me," she said, as the female voice on the recording speaks with an obvious drawl.

"I wouldn't pick up a Southern accent that fast," she said, chuckling.

And yet, in listening to the rest of the album from that day's session Knowles-Riehl stumbled upon another female voice, this one requesting "End of the Road." "That's me," she said, as her wide brown eyes grew wider.

"It's like otherworldly," she said of hearing herself, "out of body."

With the headphones still on, Knowles-Riehl appeared in that moment as she does in the '56 photograph: Her face bright and blushing, wondering how could it possibly get any better than this.

How We Tracked Her Down

It didn't take Tribune readers long to begin guessing the identity of the woman pictured alongside the Million Dollar Quartet.

"The woman in the photo sure looks like Patsy Cline," one man e-mailed, just an hour after the story first appeared on the Tribune's Web site two weeks ago.

Cline, in fact, proved the most popular guess about the woman photographed at the one-time singalong of the Quartet, a.k.a. Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Other errant ideas included several '50s starlets, different Elvis girlfriends and "my mom's aunt."

Until today's article, all that Elvis enthusiasts knew about the mystery woman was that she was 19 when she and Elvis briefly dated in 1956; she was probably named Marilyn Evans--though Perkins remembered something else--and that she was a dancer at a Las Vegas casino.

Those scant facts had long stymied historians, who, over the decades, searched fruitlessly for the whereabouts of a woman who seemingly vanished off the face of the Earth.

Mary Green knew different, though.

Green of Barrington said she nearly passed out when she opened her Tribune and saw the Live! section cover the day the story ran.

"I looked at the page and said, 'Oh my gosh, that's Marilyn!'."

Green has been friends with Evans, now Marilyn Knowles-Riehl, since the early 1960s, when both studied dance and had been sorority sisters at the University of Utah. While Green knew Evans had once visited Elvis in Memphis, Green didn't know about the recording session with the Quartet.

Within minutes of reading the story, Green called Knowles-Riehl, whose husband, Jeff Riehl, later wrote the Tribune a note that declared,: "That is Marilyn Evans in the photo. "She is alive and well, and still looking good.

"She has a son and two granddaughters, and she is my wife."

After so many false leads, I skepticall

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Ciscoking wrote on November 12, 2008
Great story, thank you.
I am Buffalo-Horn! wrote on November 12, 2008
Surely some-one asked her if Johnny Cash actually did sing on the session, or did he just stay for the photo & then go shopping, as has been reported? I've never been able to hear him on the session myself. The other theory is that he was way 'off mike' & not picked up, but personally I think his rather evasive answers re the session indicate that there is some doubt. I wonder if the finances of paying the artists for the session, when the Million Dollar Quartet was finally released, might have had something to do with it?
EspenK wrote on November 12, 2008
Yeah I was looking for that question too, Bernard. Apparently the journalist wasnt too updated on the circumstances around this session. But I wonder: Is Elvisnews really allowed to copy entire articles like this - not even linking to the actual story?
Ruthie wrote on November 12, 2008
Johnny Cash stated in an interview years ago that he did not sing on that recording. He was in the studio & Phillips wanted him to pose with the group. He left shortly thereafter. But, as far as the play (at the Apollo Theatre) goes, it should be fun. Can't wait to see it!
Rob Wanders wrote on November 12, 2008
I read in an inteview with Johnny Cash, shortly before he died, that he was singing in this quartet, but because they sung the songs in a higher key than he was used to he had to sing higher also and therefore his voice is not recognisable.
sitdown68 wrote on November 13, 2008
EspenK: Isn't The the copyright concern about the posted quite an odd question? I haven't seen anybody ask this question when it comes to a review of let's say correctly an illegal product as a bootleg. So as long as these reviews appear I would call it a strange ethical behaviour to be worried about that ;-)
Ruthie wrote on November 13, 2008
Sorry, I wrote this previously under the wrong heading - the old girl is slipping! Anyways, what I am trying to say is that if you take the tour at Sun Records in Memphis, they will point out to you that Cash did not record with Elvis, Jerry Lee & Carl that day. He was in the studio for a while & did some jamming but did not record on Million Dollar Quartet recording.
Jumpin Jehosaphat wrote on November 18, 2008
Another part of History at 706 Union . nice story
BBManTwo wrote on November 22, 2008
Man, we really don't care who she was, do we ? All we can guess is that she was "dated..." if you want to call it that way by practically all singers that were there...probably. That qualaifies her, doesn't it folks. Must have have the talk of the town in those days in M'phis !