“I’m in a Crowd, but I’m So Alone”: Elvis and the Million Dollar Quartet
On a Tuesday in December of 1956, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis (during his brief rise to the top), Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash were fooling around in the Sun recording studio. The young Jerry Lee and already national phenomenon Elvis harmonized better than the Beatles would some seven years hence when “Love Me Do” became a hit, and Jerry Lee and Elvis had never even sang together before. They had just met. The four men just started playing music (there’s disagreement about how long Johnny Cash was there, though he claims to be the first there and last to leave). A moment of divine chance that Sam Phillips caught on tape.
They joke around and you can hear what a good ol’ boy Elvis is. He’s cutting up and telling jokes just like a southern guy swigging whiskey on an oak barrel on a dusty road outside the gas station with his buddies.
For most of the time together they sing spirituals, then Chuck Berry and Little Richard songs, but for about 15 songs in a row its straight gospel songs. These icons of everything wild and frightening to the older generation naturally just start singing the songs from their youth. You hear Jerry Lee’s Tennessee twang between songs: “Boy, I love those old spiritual songs!” And all of those guys know ALL the words. They knew where they came from, and somehow since then we’ve forgotten our old songs and our old stories. I confess that I don’t think I even know all the words to “Amazing Grace,” that most familiar and comforting song for anyone who grew up in an old country church. Yes, I believe we’re losing those songs, ones once foundational enough to be right on the tip of the tongues of four of our music icons 45 years ago.
In the middle of the gospel music section, Elvis starts singing this old country song called “I’m With a Crowd but So Alone” that Earnest Tubb made famous. Nobody joins in, except Carl Perkins I think it is, for a brief moment. A girl interrupts, and asks them all to sing a song she wants to hear. Sometimes events are rife with symbolism. What could be a more emblematic event for Elvis’s life? He was in a crowd but he was very alone, and nobody wanted to join him or hear about it. He wasn’t popular in high school at all, but after he made it big, he had all the football players, cheerleaders, and prom kings and queens be part of his entourage. They’re probably the ones you hear interrupt him singing “I’m With a Crowd.” Life itself has the best plots, and the greatest ironies.
It’s hard to have friends when people let you become a god. They don’t want to hear you sing your problems; they want you to solve theirs. They need answers from you–that’s how the deal works. We don’t want to believe our gods are vulnerable. They can’t be weak, or else what does that say about the rest of us.
Originally published at A Missing America: