This is just a fun story.
Back in 1956 the “Million Dollar Quartet”had a session in Sun Studios that is now the stuff of legends. Seated for the famous picture was a woman that no one could identify. Until now. But before we get to the woman, and her story, I think everyone should know about the famous quartet session. To be a fly in the room…….
On Dec. 4, 1956, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash played together for the only time in their lives during an impromptu jam session at Sun Studios in Memphis. Sparks flew. As the personalities jockeyed for position, Sun founder (and ever the promoter) Sam Phillips scurried across the street to snag a photographer from the Memphis Press-Scimitar to document the two-hour session.
That photograph is literally worth a million words. And it gave birth to the “Million Dollar Quartet” musical now playing at the Goodman Theatre.
Acclaimed music historian Colin Escott wrote the book Good Rockin’ Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll,”and also co-authored the script to “Million Dollar Quartet” along with Floyd Mutrux, who wrote and directed the rock film “American Hot Wax.”
The famous foursome had gathered at Sun to hear Carl Perkins (who had already scored a hit with “Blue Suede Shoes”).
“Jerry Lee’s first record had been out for two days,” Escott said from his home in Nashville. “He was scufflin’ just trying to make ends meet. Elvis was back in town for Christmas and dropped by unannounced — as he often did.” (Presley was already a star having left Sun for RCA Records. In the fall of 1956 he had appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”)
According to the May 1957 edition of the Sun Record Company magazine, Presley walked into a Sun studio where Lewis was rehearsing. Presley sat down at a piano and started playing Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill.” He then started singing. Perkins jumped in on vocals. Cash showed up and sang a few bars (as Phillips had already alerted him to come to the studio).
“Some other guys were there too,” Escott said. “Like Smokey Joe Baugh (a Sun vocalist who had a 1955 hit with ‘Signifying Monkey,’ later recorded by Memphian Sam the Sham), and Elvis’ then-girlfriend (Marilyn Evans, who is depicted in the play). No one knows what happened to her, the best bet being she went back to Vegas.”
Three reels of session tapes from that million dollar moment didn’t surface until 1969. Since then roughly 40 more raw tracks have been released with the quartet covering tunes from Gene Autry, Bill Monroe and Hank Snow. Despite the photo of Presley at the piano, Lewis played most of the piano and Presley sang most of the leads.
“Everyone was responding to Elvis,” Escott said. “He had left them, gone into another orbit and they were all in awe of what he had done. Even though he was completely unknown, Jerry Lee was the dominant one. He definitely believed he belonged in their company. When you listen to the tapes, you can hear Jerry Lee just busting to be heard.”
At the end of the session Lewis left his compatriots in the dust with “Crazy Arms” (his debut Sun single) and a heartfelt version of Autry’s “You’re the Only Star In My Blue Heaven.”
Now to the lost girlfriend.
On Dec. 4, 1956, Marilyn Evans entered–and exited–rock ‘n’ roll history.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.Fresno, Calif., lived to dance.Mickey Rooney and George Chakiris.
That was the day
“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.
Two weeks ago, the Tribune ran a story about the missing-girlfriend mystery, explaining why the “Million Dollar Quartet” show features a fictitious Elvis girlfriend, “Dyanne.”
“Given that lawyers govern everything these days, they said, if you don’t know where [Evans] is, [then] we had to create a fictitious character,” Escott said at the time. As it happens, Evans, now Marilyn Knowles-Riehl, 71, saw the article and contacted the Tribune.
For 52 years she has hidden in plain sight, a living, missing link to one of America’s most magical music moments.
When a promoter called Marilyn Evans in summer 1956 and asked her to join the chorus line at Las Vegas’ New Frontier Casino, she could hardly contain herself–this teenager from
“I thought it was probably the most sophisticated thing that had ever happened in the whole world,” she said last week with an easy laugh.
She came to a Las Vegas in its infancy, a relatively innocent place, where the dancers enjoyed good pay–$135 a week–sports cars and soirées with such headliners as
“It was just very exciting: two shows a night, seven days a week,” she said. “I was loving it.”
Between shows, the dancers would gather in an employees-only coffee shop within the casino. It was there that Elvis walked in one night and sat at their table. “Wow,” Evans thought. “He’s beautiful–really, truly.”
Within an hour, Elvis had slipped Evans a scrawled note on the back of a napkin. It read: “Can I have a date with you tomorrow night or before I leave?”
Evans nodded in excitement and shock.
“He called backstage that night, set a time,” she remembered.
And so, for the next couple of weeks she and Elvis explored Las Vegas, driving around, hanging out and walking through the casinos. (Neither enjoyed gambling, she said.) Asked why he picked her, she giggles and shrugs.
“I think he probably liked that I wasn’t ‘out there.’ I was respectable,” she said. “I still am respectable, you know!”
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.Utah.
“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
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.