Houston Scores Big-Time In Latest Editon Of Encyclopedia Of Country Music: Part 3

The further one digs into the second edition of The Encyclopedia of Country Music, the deeper one's appreciation of the contributions of Houston's country-music pioneers becomes. Yeah, just check out the black circles under the eyes and drunk-ass grins on Leon Payne's band above. That photo alone speaks volumes about Houston about the time I was born.

As with our previous examinations of the new volume, today's installment covers some monumental figures who not only contributed mightily to the history of country music but to the coming worldwide craze known as rock and roll.

This is hardly surprising to anyone familiar with the mixed-up nature of Houston's music scene. Dave Alvin describes Houston as the place where blues, zydeco, Cajun, Western, Latin and Eastern European styles all converged into a unique sound. Hardcore honky tonk was one of those unique sounds that pushed several Houston musicians and songwriters to the forefront of the industry.

Leon Payne: A consummate singer and writer, Leon Payne, "The Blind Balladeer," lived in Houston from 1948-52; It was during this time that Hank Williams recorded two Payne compositions, "Lost Highway" and "They'll Never Take Her Love From Me."

His first charting single, "Lifetime to Regret," secured him a deal with Capitol Records. But according to music historian Bill Malone, Payne's "most universally admired song" is "I Love You Because," which was a hit for Payne in 1949. The song has been covered countless times, even by Elvis Presley. George Jones was also known to dip into Payne's repertoire and had a substantial hit with Payne's classic, "Things Have Gone To Pieces."

Tiny Moore: A product of Port Arthur and an avid fan of jazz, Moore popularized the electric mandolin in Western Swing as a member of Bob Wills' band. He later settled in California and toured with Merle Haggard during the '70s and occasionally performed with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen.

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Moon Mullican: Corrigan-born pianist Moon Mullican, known as the King of the Hillbilly Piano Players, was an electrifying performer, an accomplished songwriter, and a carouser of monumental proportions. "Legendary" is almost too small an adjective to describe the man who not only became a huge country-music star but also was at the forefront during rock and roll's incubation period.

People like Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard cite him as influences. Mullican described his style as "Texas Socko" or "East Texas Sock," and claimed he developed the style working in Houston in the late '30s, where he was no doubt influenced by the likes of Amos Milburn and other "boogie-woogie" pianists setting new standards for piano in the city.

He worked with Cliff Bruner for a while before breaking off with his band, the Showboys. Circa late 1945 he recorded a session for Houston's Gulf Records but it was never issued. By 1946, he was signed to now-legendary Cincinnati label King Records, where he scored his first hit, "New Pretty Blonde," a nonsense cover version of "Jole Blon."

He then had a string of hits working with African-American producer Henry Glover: "Sweeter Than the Flowers," covers of pop songs "Mona Lisa" and "Goodnight Irene," and his signature tune, "I'll Sail My Ship Alone." In 1950, Mullican relocated to the West Texas oil-boom town Odessa, where I was born and raised. My father recalls seeing Mullican several times at local clubs and hearing his regular program on KECK-AM.

When I was four years old, my grandmother used to let me stay up late on nights when the Grand Ole Opry came on; Mullican, who often wore a Hereford cowhide suit onstage, was my favorite performer on the Opry. Although he didn't receive credit, it is widely believed that Mullican collaborated with Hank Williams in writing "Jambalaya," and it was Williams who brought him to the Grand Ole Opry in June 1951.

"Cherokee Boogie" climbed into the charts the same year. Mullican returned to East Texas in 1955 and continued to record for King and then for several other labels. His last charting single was "Ragged But Right" in 1961 on Pappy Daily's Starday label.

Truly one of the fathers of rock and roll, Mullican died of a heart attack in 1967. Houston native Rodney Crowell frequently honors Mullican by performing the bawdy Houston-centirc Mullican classic, "I'm An Old Pipeliner." Mullican's tune "Seven Nights To Rock" has been covered numerous times, most famously by Brit-rocker Nick Lowe and Bruce Springsteen.

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Steve Gilbert
Steve Gilbert

Herb Remington still does an occasional session at Limelight Recording Studios down in Dickinson with Don Westmoreland.  I saw his rig all set up and ready to go when I did a session down there a couple of years ago. 

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