“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

King’s Classic Yodeling 78

78 RPM claims that King released Carolina Cotton‘s signature song “I Love to Yodel” (penned by the singer herself) as the B-side – Discogs, too.  I find that hard to believe:

“I Love to Yodel”     Carolina Cotton     1946

According to the person who posted this audio clip on YouTube:

Recorded 30 October 1946 (possibly) at Radio Recorders, 7000 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood , CA — Hank Penny Orchestra a.k.a. Carolina Cotton Pickers (Hank Penny [leader], Carolina Cotton [vcl], Fred Cianci [fiddle], Ralph Miele [steel], Doye O´Dell [gt/vcl?], Max Fidler [fiddle], Bob Caudana [accordion], and possibly Eddie Bennett [piano].

Carolina Cotton was born Helen Hagstrom in Cash Arkansas (1925 – 1997) a.k.a., “The Yodelling Blonde Bombshell.”

“I Love to Yodel” b/w “Mocking Bird Yodel”

Surprisingly little fanfare surrounding this unjustly obscure western swing King classic – released in November, 1949.  Exactly three years prior, King had released Cotton’s first single “Three Miles South of Cash (In Arkansas)” b/w “Singing on the Trail” in November, 1946.  Cotton briefly performed with Hank Penny, reports the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, who undoubtedly helped her get signed with King.

I first learned of this song by way of cassette, interestingly enough — yet another influential musical moment facilitated by the Cherokee Trading Post, who once sold tapes of King recordings (sometimes conjoined with items from the Starday label) produced by Gusto/IMG — owners of the King and Starday combined catalog since 1975.  The cassette in question All Star Western Swing — as with Country Tunes Done R&B (celebrated in the previous piece) — has no corresponding catalog record in Discogs, nor can you find any information about it on the web (okay, one reference).

Undated cassette – produced by Gusto/IMG

Furthermore, just as with Country Tunes Done R&B, there is a King LP that appears to be the inspiration for the cassette version marketed by IMG/Gusto — in this case, 1963’s Western Swing – Famous Western Bands.  This vinyl long-playing collection contains all 8 songs found on the cassette plus 4 additional tunes by Paul Howard (& His Arkansas Cotton Pickers), Leon Rusk, Luke Wills (& His Rhythm Busters), and Jimmie Widener.

Western Swing – Famous Western Bands [King LP 876]

[click on song title links below to hear streaming audio]

A little surprised by the fact that five of the twelve songs included on this album are not yet available for preview on YouTube.

*Amusingly, the label says “Bring It On to My House HENRY

I remember sending copies of these tapes to Larry Nager during my first flush of wonder back in the 1990s on my annual trips to Cincinnati, and Larry theorizing that places like Cherokee Trading Post in semi-rural West Virginia just might be the last vestiges of Syd Nathan’s distribution system in place — “bringing the music to the people” where they live.

“I Love to Yodel” can also be found on this rare Audio Lab EP

An earlier version of “I Love to Yodel,” by the way, would be recorded for Cotton to sing in the 1944 film I’m From Arkansas. (click on link to watch the clip).  Check out the Carolina Cotton website for lots of great information and vintage photos.

King’s ‘Country Done R&B’ LP

Just after I finished putting together the “Chew Tobacco Raghistory piece, I happened to have stumbled upon a 1964 King LP compilation – Top Rhythm & Blues Artists Do the Greatest Country Songs – that no doubt served as a template for the Gusto King cassette compilation, Country Tunes Done R&B, that I had once picked up at the Cherokee Trading Post near Wheeling, West Virginia.  I thought it might be fun to compare two collections that both set out on the same mission.

          1964 King LP                          vs.              undated Gusto cassette

Top Rhythm & Blues Artists Do the Greatest Country Songs [King LP 884]

[streaming audio web links indicated in blue and red]

Interesting to see which tracks on this album Syd Nathan does not own a piece of, i.e., hits by Buck Owens, Hank WIlliams, George Jones, Toni Harper, Leon McAulilffe and Merle Travis — half of the album.  Odd to see “Lonesome Whistle Blues” (written by Rudy Toombs, Elson Teat & James Moore, a.k.a., Slim Harpo), included on this King compilation — the only recording on this album that was not an R&B makeover of a honky tonk hit.

Despite King’s past leading-edge efforts in helping country music cross over into the R&B market and vice versa, I can’t help thinking this King collection was packaged in response to the massive commercial success enjoyed by Ray Charles on his 1962 album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western.  Sure enough, if you read the back cover liner notes (made possible by Discogs, tip of the hat!), you will see King informing the music-buying public that their label had, in fact, already blazed a trail with regard to this type of cross-marketing prior to Ray Charles:

This is a rare combination!  An All Star variety combination which is different, exciting, powerful, entertaining!  There is little chance to be bored or get ear fatigue from listening to a whole album by just one artist … each is different, each is a contrast, each complements the others.  A great new idea from KING RECORDS … RHYTHM AND BLUES stars meet and greet and sing some of the GREATEST COUNTRY SONGS of all time.

It’s different to say the least, yet the personal style and approach by these R&B singers to country music is amazing.  Each one of them seems to feel this kind and type of music differently and each one adapts the song to his own personality.  True the talented Ray Charles leads the way for R&B singers to do country songs and have them accepted by the public, however, it’s an interesting fact that most of the performances included herein were recorded prior to the actual recording dates of Ray Charles for his famous country album.  Who is to say for sure who was first or who originated the idea … the only important thing is that great and wonderful songs found a new meaning and have been recorded by other than strictly country artists.  It had always been sort of an unwritten rule that only country artists could sell country songs and that for anyone else to record them was unacceptable.  Well, this old hat theory went the way of the winds as proven by inspired renditions of these twelve block-busters.

While it is true that Syd Nathan’s cross-marketing efforts go at least as far back as 1949 with Bull Moose Jackson’s arrangement of “Why Don’t You Haul Off and Love Me,”I find it hilarious that King is trying to take credit for pioneering the “country done R&B” concept (“it’s an interesting fact that most of the performances included herein were recorded prior to the actual recording dates of Ray Charles for his famous country album”) using this compilation LP, as only two of the twelve songs on this album  precede Modern Sounds in Country and Western!  King obviously knows this to be the case, hence the label’s hedging (“who is to say for sure who was first or who originated the idea”) in the very next sentence.

Country Tunes Done R&B  [Starday Best of Country – Vol. Eleven – year unknown]

[streaming audio web links indicated in blue and red]

I’ve noticed in recent years that those Starday-King cassette tapes I began buying in the mid-1990s on my annual trips to Ohio are no longer available for purchase at the Cherokee Trading Post,   Just as there are certain songs or versions/arrangements that can only be found on 8-track (a fun topic previously explored here), I suspect that at least one of my Starday cassettes issued by Gusto/IMG just might harbor recordings that can be found only on cassette tape [the one example that comes readily to mind is a very hot instrumental “Western Limited Boogie” by Pee Wee King and the Golden West Cowboys – previously celebrated here].  Google the album title “Country Tunes Done R&B” and notice that – outside of Zero to 180 – the internet has no record of this cassette’s existence.  Not the worst tragedy in the world, since there are only two songs on this 8-song cassette that are not already included on Top Rhythm & Blues Artists Do the Greatest Country Songs. (though the Charles Brown recording common to both albums is worth seeking out).

“Chew Tobacco Rag” Done R&B

Lucky Millinder‘s version of the classic country hit “Chew Tobacco Rag” could easily have been included on my Gusto cassette King compilation, Country Tunes Done R&B:

Billboard‘s review in the April 21, 1951 edition was very optimistic about the single’s sales prospects:

The expectorating special from the country serves a worthy cause for Millinder as his crew sets up a big rocking beat for the fine John Carol and ensemble shouts.  First big band item in some time that could bust out for big returns.

“Chew Tobacco Rag”     Lucky Millinder     1951

That big rocking beat, by the way, courtesy of Ed Shaughnessy, future long-time drummer for Doc Severinson’s ‘Tonight Show’ Orchestra who developed his jazz chops drumming for such artists as Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Oliver Nelson, Gene Ammons, and Cal Tjader, among many others.

WFMU’s Beware of the Blog points out that Zeb Turner’s version of this popular tune released on King made it to the Top Ten:

What was 1951’s loopiest and most contagious hillbilly novelty song?  Judging by the number of cover versions it spawned, it had to be Chew Tobacco Rag, written and originally recorded by Texan Billy Briggs for the Imperial label.  Briggs’ version never managed to chart, but Zeb Turner’s version, released on King, made it all the way to within spitting distance of topping the charts, finally losing momentum at #8.

Check out the 25 or so cover versions that you can preview here in one place.

Not uncommon for Columbia to acquire regional hits and then re-market them

One music enthusiast would cough up $119 in 2015 for this 1954 King EP.

Meanwhile, someone would throw down $200 in 2011 for an original King 45.