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Interview with Lost Member of the Million Dollar Quartet

June 08, 2011

On December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins jammed together at Sun Studio in Memphis. This gathering of the young musicians on the cusp of stardom would later become known as the Million Dollar Quartet,and a hit musical would be based on their night playing together. What many people don't realize is that the quartet was actually a quintet! Marilyn Riehl, who was dating Elvis at the time, was present for that legendary jam session. We recently had the chance to speak with Marilyn about her experience and what it was like to date the future King of Rock 'n' Roll.

Q) Tell us how you met Elvis.

A) I was working at the New Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas as a dancer in the show. I was 19 at the time. Elvis was staying there after having just finished filming "Love Me Tender." The dancers and showgirls would often hang out in the coffee shop at the hotel in between shows. Elvis came in one day and sat down with us. We were all talking and he passed me a napkin that read 'Can I have a date with you?' We dated while he was there in Las Vegas and then he asked me if I’d like to come to Memphis and meet his parents. I said yes, but I had to ask my mother. She was not too thrilled, but his mom actually called her. They talked about it for awhile and my mom finally said it was ok. I flew to Memphis and met Elvis' parents. I stayed there for several days and had a great time. It just so happened that one afternoon we were riding around on his motorcycle and stopped at Sun Studio. The whole thing evolved from there!

Q) What was Elvis like?

A) He was gorgeous, very young, very respectful, and very sweet. Just a really nice guy.

Q) What was his relationship like with his parents from what you observed?

A) He was very close to his parents, particularly his mom, who was a very pretty lady. She had beautiful facial features.

Q) Did you know anything about Sun Studio prior to when Elvis brought you there?

A) I knew nothing about Sun Studio! We were just having a great time in Memphis. People recognized him by then, but they didn’t mob him, so we could go to the gas station and he could fill up his car. He could come and pick me up from the airport. People would just say 'Hi Elvis.' It was very comfortable.

Q) What happened when you arrived at Sun Studio?

A) We pulled up and went in. The guys just kind of showed up. They were all talking and then it became a jam session. They were doing their thing and not showing off for anyone. We didn’t know it was being recorded. It was very casual.

Q) How did the guys interact with each other? What did they talk about?

A) They were kidding around a lot like guys do. They played off one another musically. They were saying 'let’s try this, and let's try this.' They played a whole range of songs that they were all familiar with, not just their own hits.

Q) Did you have any idea that you were witnessing something special?

A) It was special to me because it was fun, but I didn’t know it would end up so historic. I really didn’t participate in the jam session. I just watched and listened. Being in their presence was really wonderful.

Q) The character of Dyanne in "Million Dollar Quartet" is loosely based on you. What do you think of the musical and of her character?

A) I love the musical! Anyone who has a chance to see it certainly should go. The actors in it are wonderful! Dyanne has a much bigger part in the show than I personally had with the real Million Dollar Quartet. She also sings a few songs, and believe me, I can’t carry a tune worth anything! I’m a dancer. But the costumes are very 1950s and the show is just so much fun.

Q) I understand that you appear in the original photograph of Elvis, Carl, Johnny, and Jerry Lee gathered together around a piano at Sun Studio. Tell me about that.

A) That is true and I have the original photo to prove it. That picture was on the front page of a Memphis newspaper the day after the jam session. I have a copy of that paper. Today, I often get cropped out of the photo, but I have no hard feelings!

"Million Dollar Quartet" 
is currently on stage in London, Chicago, and New York. A U.S. tour of the musical will launch in October 2011 at Playhouse Square in Cleveland, Ohio. 

Marilyn with the New York cast of "Million Dollar Quartet."
Courtesy: Wall Street Journal