14-year old kid named Aubrey Mullican walked into a Lufkin
café one night in 1923, played piano for two hours and walked home
with $40 in tips, or about two weeks salary for the average working
man of the day.
Back home on the family's 87-acre farm in Polk
County near the Louisiana border, young Aubrey's parents weren't
as happy about the windfall as he might have hoped. This playing of
the devil's music - in the devil's den, no less - was not what the
Mullicans hoped for when he took over his sister's organ and started
playing hymns, note for note, by ear in no time at all.
But the kid the world would know as Moon Mullican, introduced far
and wide as "the King of the Hillbilly Piano Players," had access
to a veritable gumbo of musical influences beyond the church, beginning
with a black sharecropper named Joe Jones who introduced him to the
blues and the guitar, though Mullican always gravitated toward the
In that slice of Southeast Texas, Mullican heard and was influenced
by not only blues and gospel music, but also country, swing, jazz
and Cajun styles. We only know of piano players like Buster Pickens
and Cowboy Washington today because they influenced Mullican in that
time and place.
The row with his parents over what kind of music he played and where
he played it was never resolved, so at 16 Mullican left Polk
County for Houston.
Somewhere early in the course of a long musical career he acquired
the nickname "Moon" either in honor of moonshine or because he worked
all night long in honky tonks. And worse.
"The only place a piano-playing kid like me could get work wasn't
exactly high class," Mullican later recalled. "The ladies of the evening,
who worked there, would come and sit on the piano bench and fan me
as I played."
Mullican first made his mark and his living with Western swing bands
like the Blue Ridge Playboys and Cliff Bruner's Texas Wanderers, bands
that fused jazz and country music into something Mullican recognized
from the East Texas musical
gumbo he grew up with. He also played for a time with Jimmie Davis,
governor of Louisiana and a swing musician of note, and was a sought-after
session player. He formed his own band, the Showboys - the "Band with
a Beat" - in the late 1930s and took over as a surprisingly good vocalist.
The Showboys were regulars on the honky tonk circuit along the Texas
and Louisiana border, playing country ballads but also a combination
of country and swing and Mullican's blues-influenced piano, creating
what sounds today a whole lot like rock and roll.
As kid growing up in Ferriday, Louisiana, Jerry Lee Lewis, like Mullican,
took to the piano at an early age and endured the same tug of war
between the church and the honky tonk that Mullican did. Jerry Lee
took in many of the same influences as Mullican, but he was looking
for a sound he hadn't heard yet when he heard Mullican play piano
for the first time.
Rock and roll was the sound Jerry Lee Lewis was looking for. Moon
Mullican was playing it.
"Moon Mullican knew what to do with a piano," Lewis said later.
hit was "Cherokee Boogie" in 1951. Other songs, rocker like "Shoot
the Moon" and "Don't Ever Take My Picture Down," influenced a younger
generation of musicians who wanted to feel like Moon Mullican's
songs sounded, and a generation beyond that one felt the same pull.
You can still hear the influence today.
Mullican's Cajun influences also served him well. He had a minor
hit with "New Jole Blon" in 1947 and is widely credited today as
the uncredited co-writer of his pal Hank Williams' monster hit,
"Jambalaya." But he's not widely known today even for the music
that is unmistakably his.
was in his 50s, overweight, pasty-faced and always wearing a big
cowboy hat when Elvis, Jerry Lee and the others introduced the masses
to rock and roll. Born at just the right time and place to soak
up an intoxicating stew of raw and divergent musical styles, he
was born too early to cash in on the style of music he helped create.
That's not to say his talents have gone completely unrecognized.
He's a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the
Rockabilly Hall of Fame. We could say of Mullican's music that they
don't write 'em like that anymore, but they do. It's just that Mullican
wrote 'em first.