“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

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

  1. Moon Mullican is one of the greatest blues based country singers of all time and he has inspired everyone from Hank Williams to Bill Monroe to Jim Reeves to Chuck Miller to Jerry Lee Lewis to Buddy Holly along the way. He soaked up many influences from gospel to jazz to western swing to bluegrass but blues was always in the mix. Along with his friends and contemporaries like Bill Monroe, Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills, Floyd Tillman and Red Foley, Moon was one of the architects of classic country music as we have come to know it. He also went on to inspire 2 singers who would go on to make country music internationally famous: Hank Williams and Jim Reeves. He was also the originator of many bluegrass standards like “The leaves mustn’t fall”, “Foggy river” and “Sweeter than the flowers”. Perhaps his most profound influence was on rock ‘n’ roll though: the R&B sound of songs like “Rocket to the moon” or “Grandpa stole my baby” had the same convincing performance style of Elvis. Moon’s bluesy singing backed by uptempo piano was an inspiration for Jerry Lee Lewis. “& nights to rock” proved Moon could fit right in as a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer because he was one.

    Nick Tosches writes of a Moon Mullican song called “New milk cow blues” but does it actually exist? Not really. While credited to Moon Mullican, King 607 actually is Moon backing Johnny Lee Wills’ vocalist Cotton Thompson (a little like Jerry Lee backing Carl Perkins on the 1920s blues song “Matchbox blues” later). While Thompson’s recording is fine, it is not really a Moon Mullican record. And it is very different to the standard “Milk cow blues” lyrics as done by Thompson with JL Wills or Tommy Duncan did with Bob Wills or indeed Elvis did later. They are all derived from Kokomo Arnold’s original though. But, the prospect of Moon ACTUALLY doing “Milk cow blues” which he surely knew would be awesome. Jerry Lee actually did his version of “Matchbox blues” and it was awesome (it mixed in lyrics also heard on an old Moon Mullican song “Pipeliner blues” too).

    Fans of Moon look at him in different ways. Some want the uptempo blues like “Let me rock you baby”, “Trouble trouble”, “Cotton picker”, “I done it”, etc. but there is a tendency to underrate the ballads (as would be the case with his successors Elvis and Jerry Lee later). Songs like “There’s a chill on the hill tonight”, “A crushed red rose”, “Crippled for life”, “The leaves mustn’t fall”, etc. are all excellent and combine lovely melodies with heartfelt singing.

    Even an extensive knowledge of Moon’s diverse career may not prepare one for some of the other styles he is capable of singing and playing. “7 come 11” is pure instrumental brass driven jazz, “Lay me down beside my darling” is a George Gershwin-esque blues ballad that reminds me of Sam Cooke’s 1956 take on “Summertime”. Other earlier tracks like “I’ll keep thinking of you” and “It’s all over now” are early examples of the ballad style that lead to hits like “I’ll sail my ship alone” or other fine tracks of his King era like “Worries on my mind”.

    Later in his career, Moon fitted in well with the honky tonk and Nashville Sound styles alike. Tracks like “I’ll pour the wine” and “My love” show he could work with a rough honky tonk sound or fit in with the Anita Kerr singers. His last tracks produced by William Beasley such as “Love don’t have a guarantee” and an excellent version of “Nobody’s darling but mine” show us he remained a great artist until the end. He had so much more to offer but offered so much in his life.

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