the root cellar: moon mullican & wynonie harris

I’m the highest paid blues singer in the business, I’m a $1,500 a week man. Most of the other fellows sing for $50 to $75 a night, I don’t. That is why I’m no Broadway star. The crooners get swamped with Coca Cola-drinking bobby soxers and other jail bait. I star in Georgia, Texas, Alabama, Tennessee and Missouri!”

– Wynonie Harris

 

by john pinamonti

 

Now there’s two names you don’t see every day. “Moon” and “Wynonie”. Names just as rare as the amazing music these two men made. Mullican forged a number of styles into a musical gumbo that influenced artists as diverse as Hank Williams, Jerry Lee Lewis, Nick Lowe and Bruce Springsteen, just as Harris shouted out some rollicking Rhythm ‘n Blues that laid the groundwork for Elvis and the rest of Rock ‘n Roll. Both of these men recorded for King Records, and this month we will look at their respective “best of” CDs.

Moonshine Jamboree

Phil Davies, in his fine overview of Mullican posted on the Rockabilly Hall of Fame site sums it up best when he says “Moon was a major innovator with his piano stylings and is one of the main links between Western Swing, Honky Tonk and Country Boogie”. Clearly you can hear all this happening in his music, and the broad scope of his “style”, both vocally and instrumentally, deserves better attention not only because of his unique combination of things musical but because he played with such feeling, and the exuberant energy flowing through the performances on this CD should not be missed. It is also important to note that he was part of the nascent “Western Swing” scene, and his experiences with guys like Cliff Bruner and Bob Dunn helped him realize that the sky was the limit when it came to combining musical influences. Hence, when you hear him, you will hear a definite “country” bent, but you will also hear jazz-influenced ensemble lines, rocking backbeats, swinging piano solos and Moon’s impassioned vocal phrasings along with the obligatory fiddle and steel guitar. He called his music “East Texas Sock” – that’s a great way of putting it, and it is important to remember that he comes out of and is a vital part of the musically fertile Lonestar State. My favorite tracks on Moonshine Jamboree are “Leaving You with a Worried Mind,” “Pipeliner Blues,” “Cherokee Boogie,” and “Don’t Ever Take My Picture Down,” though I must confess I end up with a new favorite every time I listen to this disc! Also of interest is the CD Showboy Special: The Early King Sides, which features Mullican’s first King group. While not quite as rocking as Moonshine Jamboree, it nonetheless has some fine tracks like “New Pretty Blond (Jole Blon)” and the jazzy instrumental “Shoot the Moon,” and it’s good to listen to after you’ve heard the Moonshine CD, as it will give you a greater appreciation of how Moon’s music developed.

Bloodshot Eyes: The Best of Wynonie Harris

And speaking of exuberance, Wynonie Harris will get you twistin’ and shoutin’ in no time! He is perhaps best remembered for his jumping version of “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” which I personally think is a better version than Roy Brown’s (even if it is Roy’s tune!), and of course you all know what Elvis started with that song. But the thing that really stands out on all the sides on this CD is the participation of some stellar players who are swept along by Wynonie’s let’s-rock-the-house attitude. When you’ve got people like Bill Doggett, Jimmy Butts, Cat Anderson, Specs Powell and Red Prysock playing with you, and you are a player’s singer like Wynonie, it’s not hard to imagine how they were all spurred on to some joyous and perfectly complimentary playing. My favorite tracks are “Good Morning Judge,” “Quiet Whiskey,” “Battle of the Blues, Pt. 2” (a duet with his idol Big Joe Turner) and “Bloodshot Eyes.”

Final Notes: Although I have discussed the two best compilations here, there are several other fine offerings by both of these artists. For example, the Classics label has three discs of Harris’ lesser-known recordings but they are worth getting if you like what you hear on the King disc. Consult the above-mentioned website by Mister Davies for more info and recommendations. Also, the connection between these artists and Syd Nathan’s King Records needs to be acknowledged, as does the involvement of producer Henry Glover, who worked with both men. Nathan is an interesting character – a jack-of-all-trades who started the label with the intent of cashing in on the hillbilly/country market, but soon found out that he could also sell lots in the “race” market, too. (Translation: “hillbilly/country” meaning white record buyers, “race” meaning black record buyers, although a fair number of whites bought the “race” records, too!). Glover was a black producer who was a jack-of-all-trades for Nathan and had the savvy to bring out the “Sock” in Mullican’s “East Texas Sock” and was essential in creating great sessions for Harris and his merry sidemen. Clearly, his involvement was essential. The story of King deserves a column (or a book!) all it’s own. For now, I will simply say the amazing thing is that even though the records of Mullican and Harris were pitched to different markets, they both are connected by common musical influences, and they played a huge part in the formation of rock and roll. A prime example of this is the song “Bloodshot Eyes,” which was a song first released by “country” artist Hank Penny and then made into a hit by Wynonie. What Nathan saw as commercial potential, musicians saw as stylistic potential. All of this was not lost on a crazy record producer in Memphis named Sam Phillips, nor on the young lad from Tupelo, Mississippi that helped him create a musical revolution.

Next month: New Orleans’ own Snooks Eaglin.

 

Originally published:
Issue Eleven
July 2001

 


John “Pointy” Pinamonti is a Managing Editor of Smokebox and an accomplished guitar slinger who practices his trade while slurpin’ fine bourbon and playing smoky clubs in New York City. His latest cd “High, Wide And Handsome” is available at his website.

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