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:
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
Hard to believe it was only 20 years or so ago I was having cheese coneys with The Cincinnati Enquirer‘s preeminent music writer Larry Nager and asking what it would take for the city to finally “own up” to its King Records history. Last week, to my utter delight and amazement, the City of Cincinnati, under Mayor John Cranley’s leadership and with the support of City Council, leveraged the power of the state on behalf of music history — so now Zero to 180 will have to find something else to complain about.
Thanks to a $1 land swap deal, there will be no wrecking ball for the original structure used by Syd Nathan and his talented team to birth a musical enterprise that enabled King the ability to ship out in the morning a piece of music that had been recorded the evening before. As Brian Powers point out in his King Records Scrapbook, no other label – including almighty Columbia – had the nimbleness to operate in this capacity.
Photo courtesy of Brian Powers
Unique among fellow King chroniclers and researchers, Powers organizes his King Records Scrapbook categorically — The Executives; A&R Men; Sound Engineers; Session Musicians; Recording Artists — rather than chronologically, while throwing in fun tidbits, such as a King Records Timeline of historical highlights plus street addresses of selected King artists and executives, including Syd Nathan (who once lived in Bond Hill an easy walk from the home of drummer, Reg Grizzard, and about a mile and a half from my boyhood home in Roselawn, as the crow flies).
Rob Finnis, in his extensive liner notes for Ace UK anthology King Rockabilly, reveals some of the audio engineering aspects behind King’s legendary sound (e.g., “Fever” by Little Willie John):
The live, upfront studio sound attained by engineer Eddie Smith had the bass and drums leaping out of the speakers with maximum impact. [Charlie] Feathers wasn’t the only beneficiary [“Bottle to the Baby“]. This sharp, larger-than-life ambience characterizes several other titles on this compact disc including “Move” [Boyd Bennett], “Peg Pants” [Bill Beach], “No Good Robin Hood” [Delbert Barker], and “Rock n’ Roll Nursery Rhyme” [Dave Dudley]. “That old King studio had a terrific sound,” explained Henry Glover. “It had a very high ceiling, maybe 24 feet, and the control room protruded into the studio in a V-shape like the bridge of a ship so the engineer could see in front and to the side of him. I sent for an engineer by the name of Eddie Smith who was a very good technical man. He stayed with King for about 12 years and later worked over at Bell Sound in New York.
Everything was done at one time, there was no multi-tracking; you would continue making cuts until you got every instrument, every voice, on the 1/4 inch tape and that was considered your final mix. In those days, we were even thinking of frequencies and emphasis on various instruments. Out of the regular upright bass, we got a sound just like today’s electric Fender bass by close-miking it with a microphone called the 44BX and surrounding it with live-surfaced acoustic isolation panels. The drum sound in those days was generally gotten by releasing the drum snares completely and you’d put a heavy object like the drummer’s wallet – or Syd Nathan’s wallet – on the snare and the really hard-driving backbeat stroke was actually a rimshot.
Glover would be even more emphatic in his praise for King as a facility with great sound in this passage from Arnold Shaw‘s classic roots rock historical critique, Honkers and Shouters (which includes a chapter devoted to King Records entitled “Record Company in an Icehouse”):
Shortly after he joined King Records, Glover moved to Cincinnati “because Syd Nathan had built one of the finest recording studios in the country and staffed it with Eddie Smith, a former musician who was a brilliant engineer.”
Calvin Shields behind the kit [photo courtesy Brian Powers]
Last year, on the eve of the city’s Historic Commission vote to consider the request for demolition, The Cincinnati Enquirer would subtitle Sharon Coolidge’s feature story on King in the Sunday edition, “Fight to Preserve the Legacy of King Records and Founder Syd Nathan at Crossroads” and include quotes from Patti Collins (Bootsy Collins Foundation), Elliott Ruther (Cincinnati USA Music Heritage Foundation), Jon Hartley Fox (author of ‘King of the Queen City’), L.A. Reid (who actually grew up in Evanston), Otis Williams, Mayor John Cranley, former mayor Dwight Tillery, and Anzora Adkins of the Evanston Community Council.
Can you spot the gaffe?
Elliott Ruther, in the Enquirer piece, notes the progressive hiring practices employed by Nathan – in his attempt to extend his song publishing fortunes across the color line – that put King in the forefront of American race relations. Powers point out that Calvin “Eagle Eye” Shields, in his studio work from the late 1940s to the late 1950s, may have been “the first black drummer to record country music.”
CALVIN ‘EAGLE EYE’ SHIELDS – 1950 [PHOTO COURTESY OF BRIAN POWERS]
Quotes from Henry Glover & Calvin ‘Eagle Eye’ Shields
[special thanks to Brian Powers*]
“I started using drums for the first time for country music with Moon Mullican. He fell in love with a black drummer that I had been using on several dates around Cincinnati called Calvin Shields. He was better known as ‘Eagle Eye.’ He was very, very friendly and dear to Moon Mullican. He played on many of his sessions, and many of the other country & western records when they began to use drums, which they didn’t do when I first came to King. [With] Moon Mullican, I would use a heavy backbeat that this drummer called Eagle Eye, that came there with Tiny Bradshaw a few years back and made Cincinnati his home, he was ideal for that, the backbeat.” – Henry Glover
“Moon had such a great soul. He was just like a black man to me, you know, like he thought, felt, and expressed himself and everything else. Like we would say he had a whole lot of soul, Moon did.” – Henry Glover
“Drums were a must for Moon. Moon wanted drums. And he fell madly in love with this drummer called Calvin Shields that we called Eagle Eye.” – Henry Glover
“Moon Mullican was the first to use a black band at King. In just about every case, we had a black bass or maybe a black drummer with Moon in order to get the rhythm because Moon played like a black man and he even thought like a black man – in fact, I sometimes had my ideas about whether he was black or not! He was the very first white man, I believe, that caught my eye as being not filled with bigotry or hatred … he found himself as comfortable among blacks as he did among whites. And it’s a very funny thing – both races in those days were displaying standoff-ish attitudes — not Moon. Moon would make most of the black clubs in the worst parts of town and all of his friends during the course of his stay would be black people. He’d play in black clubs and they would give him a standing ovation. It was very rare.” – Henry Glover
“Glover introduced us. I walked in and all those white cats sitting around wondering, ‘Hey, he’s got a black man playing his music.’ So I don’t say nothing to them and they don’t say nothing to me. So we played and that’s when I fell in love with him because it swung. So Moon says ‘This is my drummer,’ so when he went to buy some whiskey for the group, he bought a bottle for them and a bottle of whisky for me and him. He said, ‘Man, I want you to take me over to the Cotton Club,’ and I took him. Tiny Bradshaw invited him up and he played nothing but Duke Ellington music.“ – Eagle Eye Shields
“When a cat becomes a studio musician, he’s a musician who plays anything they bring in front of him to play. When I played with Moon Mullican, I enjoyed it. When I played that Country music, I learned to swing with that Country-Western cause I got into their mood and into their groove. When I got ready to play Rhythm & Blues, I got into their groove. When I play dance music, legit music, I get in to a legit feel cause I am a musician. I didn’t become a superstar. My thing was to be good, in order to be in demand, to be sought after.”– Eagle Eye Shields
[Moon had a number of hits in 1950 produced by Henry Glover including “I’ll Sail My Ship Alone,” “Mona Lisa” & “Goodnight Irene”; Mullican accepted the invitation to join in the Grand Ole Opry that year.] “Then Moon said, ‘I want to take you on the Grand Ole Opry with me, man.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t want to go on that.’ He asked me if I would travel with him. I told him if I’ll be out there in them towns, them junctions, you might not be around and they’ll done grab me and lynch me.’ But now I wish I had because, if I had got out with Moon, I might have made a name for myself. I might have ended up with the big one – Willie Nelson.” – Eagle Eye Shields
Moon Mullican & Henry Glover
Shields, who took not only his father’s name but nickname as well, came to King through his membership in Tiny Bradshaw’s Orchestra. Eagle Eye would conduct his session work for King in between performances with Bradshaw in town at Cincinnati’s Cotton Club and on the road in New York City. Shields would subsequently serve as drummer for the Billy Williams Quartet (1957-1961), Della Reese (1967-1973) and music director/drummer for Redd Foxx (1978-1984).
Calvin Shields with Paul Bryant (organ) & Norris Patterson (sax) – 1962 in NV
The index in King Labels: A Discography, edited by Michel Ruppli (with assistance from Bill Daniels) helpfully identifies sessions where Calvin Shields served as the drummer, thus allowing Zero to 180 to compile a special list of suggested recordings — all of them captured on tape in Cincinnati (except Willis Jackson – NYC):
Abstract expressionist cover art for 1952 French LP
Furthermore, Eagle Eye is believed – as best as Brian Powers can determine – to have played on Moon Mullican‘s version of Tiny Bradshaw’s “Well Oh Well” [recorded July 3, 1950] and the classic “Cherokee Boogie (Eh-Oh-Aleena)” [December 8, 1950], written by Moon with Chief William Redbird, plus Hawkshaw Hawkins‘ version of Tennessee Ernie’s “Shotgun Boogie” [January, 1951] and Al Dexter‘s “Hi De Ho Boogie on a Saturday Night” [May 19, 1950] — all recorded at King’s Cincinnati studio. Documentation from King’s early years, unfortunately, is often scant.
Shields would also keep time on an enchanting Latin-flavored instrumentalé tropicalé whose musical hook is a gloriously deep bass blast of the horn (B-flat):
Mack Rice wrote “Mustang Sally” following a visit to his friend, singer Della Reese in New York City. Reese had off-handedly mentioned that she planned to buy her drummer a Lincoln for his birthday. Calvin Shields, the drummer, appreciated the thought but reportedly replied, “I don’t want a Lincoln, I want a Mustang.” Shields’ response confused Rice. He could not understand why anyone would want the small Mustang instead of the bigger and more powerful Lincoln. After returning to Detroit, Rice began work on a song titled “Mustang Mama.” A serendipitous visit to Aretha Franklin’s house led to the name change to “Mustang Sally.” Franklin believed that “Mustang Sally” fit better with the music. And so the song was born.
*Henry Glover quotes are from an 1980s interview with the Country Music Hall of Fame *Calvin Shields quotes are from an interview conducted by Brian Powers in 2009.
**Willis “Gatortail” Jackson played a pivotal role in Jamaican music history when spies working for Duke Reid identified the source of Coxsone Dodd’s theme song (i.e., “Coxsone’s Hop”) that cemented Downbeat‘s status as the superior sound system in Kingston: “Later for the Gator” by Willis Jackson[1958 – sounds not a little unlike ska]. In those pre-Internet days, operators of competing mobile sound systems would use American 45s with the labels scratched off as proprietary source material. Duke Reid’s discovery of Coxsone’s source material would prompt Dodd into creating an original Jamaican sound in 1962 – ska – in time for the birth of JA’s independence. Much more direct evidence of the Cincinnati-Kingston connection can be found here and here.
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