Johnny Cash On Elvis

Feb 21, 2002
We got an email from Robin Stevens with some great stories from Johnny Cash on meeting Elvis, seeing Elvis perform and playing together with Elvis and the "Million Dollar Quartet". Since Johnny Cash is celebrating his 70th birthday on February the 26th we thought it a good idea to add it to ElvisNews this week. After all, Elvis and Cash have a lot in common ... Johnny Cash talks about the Million-Dollar Quartet session (Source: CASH: The Autobiography.1997 by John R. Cash) There’s certainly a sense that Carl Perkins stands in the shadow of Elvis, Jerry Lee, and me. You can see when people talk or write about the so-called Million-Dollar Quartet session, the only time to my knowledge that all four of us sang together. Somehow Carl’s name always seems to come last in the list of participants, but in fact it was his session that day. Nobody else was booked into the studio. I was there- I was the first to arrive and the last to leave, contrary to what has been written- but I was just there to watch Carl record, which he did until mid-afternoon, when Elvis came in with his girlfriend. At that point the session stopped and we all started laughing and cutting up together. Then Elvis sat down at the piano, and we started singing gospel songs we all knew, then some Bill Monroe songs. Elvis wanted to hear songs Bill had written besides “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” and I knew the whole repertoire. So, again contrary to what some people have written, my voice is on the tape. It’s not obvious, because I was farthest away from the mike and I was singing a lot higher than I usually did in order to stay in key with Elvis, but I guarantee you, I’m there. I forget exactly when Jerry Lee came in, but I remember clearly when Elvis invited him to take over at the piano and he launched into “Vacation in Heaven.” That was the first time I ever heard Jerry Lee, and I was bowled over. He was so great that the next thing I remember, Elvis and his girlfriend were gone. The thing I remember after that, apart from going next door for coffee and cheeseburgers, is seeing the now famous “million-Dollar Quartet” photo in the Memphis Commercial Appeal and wondering what happened to Elvis’s girlfriend. She’d been sitting on the piano when the photo was taken. If you’re wondering why Elvis left right after Jerry Lee got started, the answer is simple: nobody, not even Elvis, ever wanted to follow Jerry Lee. And no, I don’t remember Jerry Lee ever saying anything disparaging about Elvis. He didn’t have an attitude about Elvis especially; he just had an attitude. Johnny Cash on Elvis (and Carl Perkinns) (Source: CASH: The Autobiography.1997 by John R. Cash) There were a lot of white people listening to “race music” behind closed doors. Of course, some of them (some of us) were quite open about it, most famously Elvis. Elvis was already making noise in Memphis when I got there in ’54. Sam Phillips had released his first single, “That’s All Right, Mama,” with “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the “B” side, and it was tearing up the airwaves. The first time I saw Elvis, singing from a flatbed truck at a Katz drugstore opening on Lamar Avenue, two or three hundred people, mostly teenage girls, had come out to see him. With just one single to his credit, he sang those two songs over and over. That’s the first time I met him. Vivian and I went up to him after the show, and he invited us to his next date at the Eagle’s Nest, a club promoted by Sleepy-Eyed John, the disc jockey who’d taken his name from the Merle Travis song and was just as important as Dewey Phillips in getting Sun music out to the world. Sleepy-Eyed John didn’t like Sam Phillips, though, so while he’d always put Sun singles on the air, usually he’d preface them with some disparaging remark: “Here’s another Sam Phillips sixty-cyclehum record,” or “This record don’t belong on here, but you people asked for it- which was a sorry thing for you to do- so here it is.” I remember Elvis’s show at the Eagle’s Nest as if were yesterday. The date was a blunder, because the place was an adult club where teenagers weren’t welcome, and so Vivian and I were two of only a dozen or so patrons, fifteen at the most. All the same, I thought Elvis was great. He sang “That’s All Right, Mama” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” once again (and again) plus some black blues songs and a few numbers like “Long Tall Sally,” and he didn’t say much. He didn’t have to, of course; his charisma alone kept everyone’s attention. The thing I really noticed that night, though, was his guitar playing. Elvis was a fabulous rhythm player. He’d start into “That’s All Right, Mama” with his own guitar alone, and you didn’t want to hear anything else. I didn’t anyway. I was disappointed when Scotty Moore and Bill Black jumped in and covered him up. Not that Scotty and Bill weren’t perfect for him- the way he sounded with them that night was what I think of as seminal Presley, the sound I missed through all the years after he became so popular and made records full of orchestration and overproduction. I loved that clean, simple combination of Scotty, Bill, and Elvis with his acoustic guitar. You know, I’ve never heard or read anyone else praising Elvis as a rhythm guitar player, and after the Sun days I never heard his own guitar on his records. That night at the Eagle’s Nest, I remember, he was playing a Martin and he was dressed in the latest teen fashion. I think his shirt came from the National Shirt Shop, where you could get something loud and flashy or something in a good rich black for $3.98 (I did), but perhaps by then he’d started shopping at Lansky Brothers on Beale Street. If he hadn’t, it wasn’t long before he did. I was in there myself two or three times in ’55 and ’56. Elvis and I talked about music, but I never spoke to him about Sun Records or any other connection into the music business. I wanted to make it on my own devices, and that’s how I set about doing it. The “blacklist” didn’t scare me, by the way. I never gave it a second thought. I didn’t have to worry about it anyway- I was country, not rock ‘n roll. No free Cadillacs, but no outraged guardians of public morality either. Elvis certainly took a lot of abuse from that crowd. He had his problems with gossip, too, and rumor and lies. He was very sensitive, easily hurt by the stories people told about him being on dope and so on. I myself couldn’t understand why people wanted to say that back in the ‘50s, because in those days he was the last person on earth who needed dope. He had such a high energy level that it seemed he never stopped- though maybe that’s why they said he was on dope. Either way, he wasn’t, or at least I never saw any evidence of it. I never saw him use any kind of drug, or even alcohol; he was always clear-headed around me, and very pleasant. Elvis was such a nice guy, and so talented and charismatic- he had it all- that some people just couldn’t handle it and reacted with jealousy. It’s only human, I suppose, but it’s sad. He and I liked each other, but we weren’t that tight- I was older than he was, for one thing, and married, for another- and we weren’t close at all in his later years. I took the hint when he closed his world around him; I didn’t try to invade his privacy. I’m so glad I didn’t, either, because so many of his old friends were embarrassed so badly when they were turned away at Graceland. In the ‘60s and ’70s he and I chatted on the phone a couple of times and swapped notes now and again. If he were closing at the Las Vegas Hilton as I was getting ready to open, he’d wish me luck, that kind of thing- but that was about the extent of it. I’ve heard it said that here at the end of the century, we all have our own Elvis, and I can appreciate that idea, even though my Elvis was my friend, flesh and blood in real life. Certainly, though, my Elvis wat the Elvis of the ‘50s. He was a kid wh
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