Born Aubrey Wilson Mullican, 29 March 1909, near Corrigan, Texas
In the early 1950s Moon Mullican billed himself King of the Hillbilly Piano Players. He was much more than a hillbilly pianist, though ; Mullican was comfortable with blues, jazz and popular music, and he was instrumental in injecting boogie into country music. Jerry Lee Lewis has cited him as a major influence.
Aubrey Mullican was raised on a farm in Southeast Texas and brought up in a strictly religious family. When he was aged about eight, his father brought home a pump organ so his daughters could learn to play it for church services. At around the same time, Mullican began to show an aptitude for music. A black sharecropper, Joe Jones, taught him the rudiments of the guitar and of country blues. The idea of Aubrey playing blues on the organ didn't please his father. By age 14, he was good enough to walk into a Lufkin, Texas cafe, sit down at a piano and leave two hours later with $ 40 in tips. Two years later, Aubrey, who had little use for farm work, clashed once too often with his father and left for Houston, where he began playing piano and singing in local clubs. By the early 1930s he had acquired the nickname Moon.
During the 1930s Moon played piano in a number of Western swing bands. His first recording session (as a sideman) took place in November 1936, with the Blue Ridge Playboys (for Vocalion), followed in 1938-40 by a few sessions with Cliff Bruner's Texas Wanderers (for Decca). In some cases he was allowed a spot as the lead vocalist, for instance on "Pipeliner Blues", which Moon first cut for Decca in April 1940, the earliest of many versions. From 1941 until 1944 Mullican worked and recorded with Jimmie Davis in Shreveport. In 1945 he put together his own band, the Showboys, who quickly became the most popular outfit in the Texas / Louisiana area with a mix of country, western swing and Moon's wild piano playing and singing. At that time Mullican described his music as "East Texas Sock", characterized by a heavy accent on the second beat.
Though he had received label credit as vocalist on some pre-1945 releases, he had not yet had a record released under his own name when he signed to Syd Nathan's King label in 1946. That was the beginning of a decade- long affiliation, resulting in a large, rich and eclectic output. His first hit with King (# 2 country, 1947) was "New Pretty Blonde (Jole Blon)", which substituted nonsense lyrics for the Cajun French of the original. A sequel, "Jole Blon's Sister", peaked at # 4. His next hit, "Sweeter Than the Flowers" (# 3, 1948) was a sentimental ballad. His only number one was "I'll Sail My Ship Alone", which topped the country charts for four weeks in 1950. By this time Moon's records were produced by King's new black A&R man Henry Glover, with whom Mullican developed a very fruitful relationship. In 1950, Moon also scored Top 10 hits with countrified covers of "Mona Lisa" and "Goodnight Irene", but after "Cherokee Boogie" (# 7, 1951), one of his best recordings in my opinion, there were no further hits for a full decade.
Moon joined the cast of the Gran Ole Opry in 1951. The next year, while touring together, Mullican collaborated with his Opry pal Hank Williams on "Jambalaya". Both men recorded the song. Moon's record on King didn't do anything, but Hank's version was # 1 for 14 weeks. Williams was listed as the sole writer because Mullican reportedly didn't trust King to pay royalties fairly and preferred to receive his share of money under the table from Williams in a gentleman's agreement. That worked until Hank's death on January 1, 1953 ; after that, it probably cost Mullican at least a million dollars in lost income.
For Moon's last session for King, in January 1956, Henry Glover teamed him up with Boyd Bennett and his Rockers, hoping to pick up sales in the exploding rock n roll market. Regardless of how convincingly he could rock (on "Seven Nights To Rock" and "I'm Mad With You", for instance), the 47-year old, heavy-set, balding Mullican was an unlikely candidate for rock and roll stardom. The writing was on the wall and his heyday was past.
In 1958-59 he recorded for Coral/Decca, under the supervision of Owen Bradley, whose slick Nashville Sound arrangements did nothing to improve Moon's sales. The selection of song material was sometimes questionable (for instance, a cover of Jan and Arnie's "Jenny Lee"). Recordings for Starday, Hallway/Kapp and Spar in the 1960s resulted in one final hit with "Ragged But Right" on Starday (# 15 country, 1961).
Moon's health began failing in the early 1960s. While performing at the Kansas City Auditorium in 1962, Mullican had a heart attack (he weighed 275 pounds at the time). He continued to record, but on New Year's Day 1967 he suffered a second, this time fatal heart attack. In 1976, he was posthumously inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, but he has not yet been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, an almost unbelievable omission.
More info / sessionography :
Acknowledgements : Kevin Coffey, Colin Escott, Rich Kienzle, Jon Hartley Fox.
Dik, May 2014
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