No one knows for sure when the genre we call rock music officially began. In its earliest stages, it was called “Rockabilly”—a blend of country, blues and Gospel thrown together with a beat.
Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Studios was looking for a new sound. He found it in Memphis, Tennessee. Now he needed the right person to bring it to a larger audience. He knew he found what he was looking for when Elvis Aaron Presley walked into his office.
Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins were all church-going country boys from impoverished, hard-working families, many of whom had alcoholism and addiction in their blood. Jerry Lee Lewis came from a poor East Louisiana farm family. Elvis Presley in Mississippi, Carl Perkins in Tennessee, and Johnny Cash in Arkansas all grew up in the hardscrabble homes of sharecroppers. Often starting as early as age six, they worked in the fields and chipped in financially to help their families survive. School was secondary to work, almost a luxury. Like Cash and Perkins, some grew up in “shotgun shacks” on dirt roads while others, like Elvis, came of age in government housing projects in the inner city where gangs, fist-fights, petty theft, and bad habits were a normal part of childhood.
Sinning, guilt and unrelenting hardship made for a heavy bottle to nurse on. These four young men all came up that hard way, and the pressures they grew up with built until they exploded into a new sound.
On December 4, 1956, four of the greatest stars in American music happened to be together in the same recording studio at the same time. The sessions became known as the “Million Dollar Quartet.”
The dollar amount is often cited as a rough guess at what it would have cost to pay Presley, Cash, Lewis and Perkins to sing together. Perkins was in the studio that day cutting new tracks. Lewis backed him on piano. Cash was there, having dropped in to watch Perkins. Meanwhile, Presley dropped in on Phillips to say hello. Phillips led Presley into the studio, and the four started an impromptu jam session. All Phillips had to do was leave the tape running. They recorded nearly four dozen tunes, almost half of which were gospel. Others were rock ’n roll classics like “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Long Tall Sally,” “I Walk the Line” and “Great Balls of Fire.”
All four of these men became legends. All four followed their own trajectories. All four fought battles. And all four eventually came to a spiritual reckoning.
Presley, Cash, and Perkins all had conflicts between the warring elements of their personalities, between themselves and addiction, and the push and pull of fame.
Cash started and ended his musical career with his faith in God unshaken. Carl Perkins became a raging alcoholic and committed his life to Christ on a tour with Johnny Cash and threw his bottle of booze into the ocean. Elvis would spend late night hours singing gospel songs as he grappled with his faith and fame. He sadly died at the age of 42 in 1977.
But Jerry Lee Lewis fought his entire life over his faith and “the devil’s music” that he loved to play. He initially refused to record “Great Balls of Fire” because he considered it blasphemous. Throughout his lifetime, Lewis repeatedly said he found himself falling short of the glory of God.
These days, Lewis is singing a different tune. Lewis wondered about his soul in a 2015 interview with The Guardian when he was eighty years old. He doesn’t worry about the music anymore; it’s the lifestyle he thinks was ungodly. He is sure he knows where his talent came from.
“How could it be the devil’s music?” he wondered. “Satan didn’t give me the talent. God gave me the talent, and I’ve always told people that.”
Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis—true pioneers of rock ’n roll—were all church-going country boys who believed in Jesus. The devil seduced their souls and didn’t let go for decades; however, they knew where to turn when the day was done.
Excerpted from Lennon, Dylan, Alice & Jesus by Greg Laurie (© 2022). Published by Salem Books. Used by permission
Greg Laurie is the pastor and founder of the Harvest churches in California and Hawaii and of Harvest Crusades. He is an evangelist, best-selling author and movie producer.