The famous Easter song Peter Cottontail was composed in 1949 by Steve Nelson and Walter Rollins, the same songwriters who wrote “Frosty the Snowman” and the “Smokey the Bear” theme, as well as assorted country songs. Country music ? I mean, rabbits live in the country, right ? This sounds like a job for Robert’s Country Blog.
Four notable artists hit the airwaves with this song in 1950 ! Yes, the good ol’ days that the self-promoted “country purists” angrily defend when they try to convince you that country music of yesteryear was some monolithic entity filled with nothing but heartache, fiddle, and steel ? And how about four artists charting with one song, all during the same year ? Peter Cottontail, of all things ?
Merv Shiner was first up, and he hit # 8 on the Billboard Hot 100: Mervin Shiner version of Peter Cottontail. He’d go on to record country music and play such shows as the Wheeling Jamboree , which will celebrate its 85th anniversary this April 7th. Merv Shiner was still living as of 2016 (at age 95), and I’ve not found anything to indicate that he isn’t still kicking at 97 !
Gene Autry was such a huge star that there’s not much I can write about him that would add to the story. His version is the one I probably grew up hearing the most, and it was the highest charting ( #3 on Billboard Hot Country Singles, and #5 on Billboard Hot 100).
Jimmy Wakely was also a singing cowboy, a star of western movies, as well as a successful country and western singer. He was even the star of a DC comic book series at the height of his popularity (which just so happens to include 1950). Here are the Covers of Jimmy Wakely Comics His version of “Peter Cottontail ” hit #7 on Billboard Hot Country Singles, and #26 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Johnny Lee Wills also hit #7 on Billboard Hot Country Singles. Johnny Lee Wills was the brother of Bob Wills, and also had a long career in western swing. Amazingly enough, “Peter Cottontail” was one of the two most successful songs of Johnny Lee Wills’ career. Here’s his profile on the National Fiddler Hall of Fame. Johnny Lee Wills’ final album was a “reunion” album in 1978, produced by a young Steve Ripley, who would go on to also produce an album the next year by Roy Clark and Gatemouth Brown. Here’s one of those songs: Four O’Clock In The Morning . Steve would go on to success as a guitar maker, guitar player for Bob Dylan, and had a country band in the 1990s called The Tractors, whose first album sold double platinum and won assorted awards (and had a couple of Grammy nominations).
Three or so years ago, the Oklahoma Historical Society commissioned Steve Ripley to restore some 1949 “lost recordings” of Bob Wills, and I bought the CD shortly after it came out. The annual Bob Wills Day in Turkey, Texas will be April 28th and will feature some of the original members of Bob Wills’ band, like Leon Rausch (age 90), Joe Settlemires, and Bobby Koefer. Here’s a black and white clip including Bobby Koefer: Bob Wills, Carolina Cotton, Bobby Koefer,etc.
Back to Peter Cottontail… Cheers to preserving real bits of country music history like “Peter Cottontail” that don’t fit the so-called “really real country” that revisionists shout about. “Hippity hoppity, happy Easter Day.”