The “Million Dollar Quartet Piano” is a vintage 1949 Wurlitzer spinet. It was the house piano at the Sun Records studio in Memphis Tennessee and is now being sold by the estate of the studio’s legendary owner, the late Sam Phillips.
The piano, unsurprisingly, features on many of the classic 1950s releases from Sun Records. But it gets its name because, in December 1956, it was used on the “Million Dollar Quartet Session”.
Carl Perkins was recording at the Sun Records studio, and Sam Phillips brought in Jerry Lee Lewis to add some piano (this Wurlitzer) to a track. A little later Elvis Presley arrived at the studio on a casual visit and sat in on the session. Johnny Cash also turned up and the recording became an impromptu jam session (see image below). The engineer had the foresight to keep the tape rolling.
A local journalist was tipped off about the event and wrote the story up using the headline “Million Dollar Quartet” and the name stuck. The session is regarded as one of the great moments in rock and roll history. An album featuring some of the tracks was released in Europe in 1981, and in 1990 “The Complete Million Dollar Quartet” album with over 40 tracks hit the stores.
Elvis played this same Wurlitzer on the majority of the tracks with Jerry Lee Lewis on the others. Lewis subsequently went on to record both “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” using this piano. And it went on to appear on so many of the classic releases from Sun Records.
The piano was originally purchased by Sam Phillips from the O.K. Houck piano store – just along the street from Sun Studio. This store was the go-to place for all Memphis’ top musicians. The piano Phillips purchased was a modest Wurlitzer spinet (serial no. 387912).
In the late 17th century a spinet was a small wing- or triangular-shaped harpsichord.
However, in the 1930s, the term was given to a new type of upright piano. The spinet piano is small, typically less than 40in high. And with the soundboard and frame only extending a few inches above the keyboard, the pianist is always in view.
To achieve this, the piano uses shorter keys and a drop action (sometimes referred to as an indirect-blow action). Here the hammer mechanism is positioned beneath the keys, and rods (blue arrow in diagram) are used to link the two. This saves space, but the playability of the instrument suffers, and they are considered difficult to service.
Spinet pianos were all the rage in the mid-20th century. They were affordable and didn’t dominate a room. But after a few decades of success, their popularity declined and production ceased in the 1990s.
Wurlitzer was, in 1935, one of the first manufacturers to bring the spinet piano to the mass market. And over the years it produced more than a million! The Million Dollar Quartet Piano was made at the company’s De Kalb (Illinois, USA) factory.
The piano resided at Sun Studio from 1950 to 1960. It was then moved around the corner to Phillips’ new premises “Sam Phillips Recording Services”. The following year Phillips moved the piano to his home where it remained until 1995. That year it was loaned to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame where it was an exhibit for 22 years. In 2017 it was moved to Graceland.
Sam Phillips died in 2003. His family now want to sell this unique instrument with the hope that it will become a permanent museum exhibit. In December it failed to sell at auction with a reserve price of $700,000 (US).
If you are interested in purchasing this item of music history please contact Ed Kosinski at auction house GottaHaveRockandRoll.com.
Please note that World Piano News has no financial interest in the sale of this piano and that this article was not “paid for”, and is editorially independent. All photographs were kindly supplied by the auctioneers.