“Hey Mister Cotton Picker”: On the Cusp of the New Rock Sound

Nick Tosches would include a “Chronology of the Coming of Rock ‘n’ Roll” in 1984’s Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll (subtitle: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Dark and Wild Years Before Elvis) that begins in January, 1945.  October, 1946 is when Cincinnati’s King Records makes its first appearance on Tosches’ proto-rock-‘n’-roll timeline:

Moon Mullican‘s ‘New Milk Cow Blues’ (King 578) is released.”

But alas – if only the song were available for us to preview on YouTube — would love to know how many people reading this history piece own an original 78 of Moon Mullican’s “New Milk Cow Blues” (especially since the song has been only reissued in Europe)…

One year prior to Elvis’s legendary Sun sessions, however, Mullican would record an especially swinging release “Hey Mister Cotton Picker” in Nashville on April 20, 1953 that King (who would categorize the song as “Folk/Western”) would issue as a single the following month:

“Hey Mister Cotton Picker”     Moon Mullican     1953

The version recorded by Tennessee Ernie Ford (featuring Speedy West, no doubt), alas, appears to have been the first one recorded (April, 1953), with Tex Williams and Roberta Lee, and the (Three) McGuire Sisters and Art Lund also putting their artistic stamp on “Hey Mister Cotton Picker” that same year.

The text on the King DJ/promo “bio disc” tells us that “when Moon was 8, his father brought a fine pump organ home, and it was on this that Mullican developed his distinctive two-fingered right-hand style of playing the piano.”

But wait!  Larry Nager’s comments about one of the more famous guests who stayed at Cincinnati’s Carrousel Inn (i.e., Merle Haggard & the Strangers in the 1980s, including the great mandolin player from Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys band, Tiny Moore) would direct Zero to 180 back to the Billy Jack Wills reissue disc already in his collection — transcriptions recorded for radio broadcast at Radio Station KFBK in Sacramento, California between 1952-1954 (among Moore’s finest playing, as Tiny would tell Nager), including a spanking version of the song (simply titled “Mr. Cotton Picker” on the track listing), with young steel virtuoso, Vance Terry, on steel guitar.

Lesson learned:  Given the alternate form of “Mr.,” I should have broadened my search by trying a search without “Mister” (six letters).

Mullican’s final recording session for King would take place three later years in Cincinnati.  As notes Phil Davies in his tribute to Moon Mullican – “King of the Hillbilly Piano Players” – for the Rockabilly Hall of Fame:

“[Mullican] tackled rock head on by going into King’s studio in January 1956 with Boyd Bennet’s band.  Together they cut the rightfully classic “Seven Nights To Rock” and “I’m Mad With You.”  What a brilliant gesture by a plump middle aged balding piano player, let’s show this durn kids that they didn’t invent the big beat.  I was partly prompted to write this piece after sadly reading an interview with BR549 where they said they’d covered the song because they were familiar with Nick Lowe’s (ex-son-in-law of Mr Cash, married Carlene Carter) 1980s cut, not with Moon’s original!  That says a lot about the modern country stations in the US.”

Further Reading:   Moon Mullican looms large in Zero to 180’s recent tribute to pioneering King session drummer, Calvin “Eagle Eye” Shields

Listen now!   WVXU radio host and music historian Lee Hay has produced numerous shows pertaining to King Records history.  Lee continues her profiles on King artists with a look at Moon Mullican:

“Known as the King of the Hillbilly Piano Players, singer, songwriter and pianist Moon Mullican was an innovator who merged styles such as blues, pop and honkytonk, showing what was possible for young pianists such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Floyd Cramer. His work predated rock ‘n’ roll by years, and his influence is still felt in the outlaw movement, rockabilly and country.  There’ll be interviews with Mullican’s nephew, Oscar Pepper; John Rumble, Senior Historian at the Country Music Hall of Fame; and Kathy Hughes, daughter of Cowboy Copas, who performed with Mullican on the Grand Ole Opry; as well as Billy Grammer, session guitar player for Mullican; and Calvin “Eagle Eye” Shields, King Records house drummer.  Listen on the web — Saturday, September 1, 2018 at 11 PM (also Sunday @ 7 PM and Monday @ 1 PM) @ WVXU