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MULLICAN, AUBREY WILSON [MOON]

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MULLICAN, AUBREY WILSON [MOON] (1909–1967). Moon Mullican, "King of the Hillbilly Piano Players" was born Aubrey Wilson Mullican near Corrigan or Moscow in Polk County, Texas, on March 29, 1909. He was the son of Oscar Luther and Virginia (Jordan) Mullican. He lived on his family's eighty-seven-acre farm at Corrigan during his childhood and developed his musical skills on a pump organ his father purchased around 1917.

The elder Mullican, a deeply religious man, wanted his children to learn sacred music. Though Moon served as a church organist during his teens, he developed an interest in blues music and learned to play the guitar with instruction from a black farmer. Impressed also by pianists who performed in local juke joints, Mullican developed a distinctive two-finger right-handed piano style that became his trademark. Much to the chagrin of his father, he began to play for dances as a teenager and aspired to become a professional musician. When he was about sixteen years old he moved to Houston and worked as a piano player for establishments that some observers characterized as "houses of ill repute." Sleeping by day and working evenings, Mullican may have received his nickname for his nocturnal habits during this period. For a time in the 1930s he performed with his own band in clubs and on the radio in Southeast Texas and Louisiana.

Later in that decade and in the 1940s he became associated with bands that performed the western swing music made famous by Bob Wills. Mullican played and sang this music with the Blue Ridge Playboys, a band that included such pioneers as Pappy Selph, Floyd Tillman, and Ted Daffanqv; he later worked with Cliff Brunerqv's bands, the Texas Wanderers and the Showboys. While with Bruner, a former member of Milton Brownqv's Musical Brownies, Mullican sang the lead vocal on the classic "Truck Driver's Blues" in 1939. That same year he traveled to Hollywood, where he played a role in the movie Village Barn Dance. He also led the band that performed with James Houston Davis during the latter's successful campaign for the Louisiana governor's office in 1944.

By 1947 Mullican, who had made his first recording in 1931, had signed a contract with King Records of Cincinnati, Ohio. With King he recorded two songs, Harry Choates's "New Jole Blon" (1947) and "I'll Sail My Ship Alone" (1950), that sold over a million copies each. The King recordings, which numbered 100, featured Mullican's smooth vocals and a piano style that merged swing, blues, honky-tonk, Cajun, ragtime, pop, and country music. During his years with the King label (1947 to 1956), Mullican had great success with such best-selling recordings as "Sweeter than the Flowers" (1948), Huddie Ledbetter's "Goodnight Irene" (1950), "Mona Lisa" (1950), and "Cherokee Boogie" (1951), which he coauthored with W. C. Redbird. He was less successful commercially with "Foggy River," "Sugar Beet," "Well Oh Well," "Moon's Tune," "Good Deal Lucille," "You Don't Have to Be a Baby to Cry," "Rocket to the Moon," "A Thousand and One Sleepless Nights," and others. In some of the King recording sessions Mullican was accompanied by a rock-and-roll band that featured a saxophone player.

Moon Mullican
Moon Mullican, the “King of the Hillbilly Piano Players,” performing with his band, the Show Boys. They played on KPAC in Port Arthur in the mid-1940s. Courtesy of Dragon Street Records, Inc.

In 1949 he joined the cast of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, where he was probably the first singing piano player to perform as a solo act on a regular basis. He remained with the show until 1955. During his career he traveled and performed across the United States as well as in Europe and Vietnam and entertained with such well-known artists as Hank Williams, Ernie Ford, and Red Foley. At one stage in his career, Mullican had his own radio show on station KECK in Odessa. He also appeared as a guest on the ABC television program Jubilee U.S.A. and entertained periodically on the Big D Jamboreeqv in Dallas. Mullican, who in conjunction with partners owned several nightclubs in Texas, served as a supporting musician on more than 200 recordings by other performers. The legendary singer Jim Reevesqv was a member of a Mullican band that played in the Beaumont region during the late 1940s.

In 1958–59 Mullican recorded in Nashville for the Coral label, a subsidiary of Decca Records. His records for Coral were remakes of songs that he had previously performed for King, as well as such new releases as "Moon's Rock," "I Don't Know Why (I Just Do)," "Jenny Lee," "Sweet Rockin' Music," and "The Writin' on the Wall." Hoping to benefit from the ascendancy of rock-and-roll in the United States, Coral sought to incorporate this style with the more traditional honky-tonk, swing, and blues forms that had made Mullican a star. However, the Coral recordings achieved virtually no commercial success and little critical acclaim. Some observers believe that Mullican's strongest performances for Coral consisted of the songs that he performed in the more conventional country style, as opposed to the newer sound.

From 1960 to 1963 Moon was a member of Jimmie Davis's band. He recorded for several minor companies at various times in his career. He made his final hit record, "Ragged but Right," on the Starday label in 1961. He also recorded a few songs such as "Quarter Mile Rows," "Colinda," "Mr. Tears," "Make Friends," and "This Glass I Hold," for the Hall–Way label in Beaumont between 1962 and 1964. Though his health declined in the 1960s, when he underwent several illnesses, he continued to perform. On January 1, 1967, he died of a heart attack at his home in Beaumont. He and his wife, Eunice, who survived him, had no children. He was buried in Magnolia Cemetery in Beaumont.

Mullican's bobbing two finger piano style influenced other musicians, including rock and country vocalist and pianist Jerry Lee Lewis and his cousin, Mickey Gilley. Lewis listened to Mullican's performances on records and over the radio and copied much of his piano style. According to a Lewis biographer, Mullican "raided jazz for rhythm to complement his country cadences." He "shouted his words and was far more interested in being heard than in being precise." Mullican once explained that "music don't count if it don't make the bottles bounce on the table."

The Nashville Songwriters Association International posthumously inducted Mullican into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1976. He had written such compositions as "Pipeliner Blues," "Moonshine Blues," "Cush Cush Ky Yai," "That's Me," "My Love," "Heartless Lover," and "So Long." According to some sources, Mullican may have helped Hank Williams write "Jambalaya," a popular novelty song that described the French Cajun culture of Louisiana. Mullican also coauthored many songs with various composers. Among those were "Leaving You With A Worried Mind," "Triflin' Woman Blues," "I Was Sorta Wanderin'," "Southern Hospitality?," and "Don't Ever Take My Picture Down." He is also a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and is honored in the Museum of the Gulf Coast Music Hall of Fame in Port Arthur. He is also a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Mullican's recordings have been preserved on numerous long-play compilations that include the King label's Moonshine Jamboree and Moon Mullican Sings His All Time Hits, as well as Moon's Rock on Bear Family Records.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Phil Davies, "Moon Mullican: King of the Hillbilly Piano Players," Rockabilly Hall of Fame (http://www.rockabilly.com/MoonMullican1.html), accessed April 29, 2008. Jimmy Guterman, Rockin' My Life Away: Listening to Jerry Lee Lewis (Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 1991). Houston Post, January 2, 1967. Irwin Stambler and Grelun Landon, Encyclopedia of Folk, Country and Western Music (New York: St. Martin's, 1969; 2d. ed., 1983).

Paul M. Lucko

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Paul M. Lucko, "MULLICAN, AUBREY WILSON [MOON]," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fmuua), accessed December 17, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on April 21, 2014. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.