Country Music · Cowpoke Legends

Cottonseed Clark

Cottonseed Clark (Photo)
Cottonseed Clark (1945 Publicity Photo)

Cottonseed Clark spent his first years in Reno, Texas, in the dusty, cotton-growing heart of the Red River Valley, where his daddy was a dirt farmer and the one and only school teacher — for all eleven grades — in the town’s one-room schoolhouse.

“My real handle is Sim Clark Fulks,” he wrote in the 1945 compendium, “Cottonseed Clark’s Brushwood Poetry and Philosophy,” which included his autobiography and home-spun prose. “I was foaled April 12, 1909, at Reno, Texas, a farm community of approximately one hundred honest, God-fearing souls located five miles east of Paris, Lamar County, Texas.”

His father, J.A. Fulks, became Superintendent of Schools for Lamar County in 1916 (leading the family to settle in Paris, the county seat), as well as a commercial printer and the founding publisher of the local newspaper, The Echo, which led to young Clark spending “many years in the newspaper business as printer, linotype operator, ad salesman, reporter” — and, later, the publisher of his own “country weekly” newspaper.

USGS Map of Paris, Texas (Image)
Paris, Texas, with Reno lying east, down State Highway 82

While in the employ of the rebranded Lamar County Echo — described by Clark as “a darn good weekly newspaper edited and owned by a mighty fine man, and one of our family’s closest friends,” Lon Boynton, who had bought the paper from the senior Fulks in 1925 — Cottonseed married Mozelle Lindley of Sulphur Springs, Texas, in January 1929. “She’s ol’ Bud Lindley’s daughter,” Clark wrote. “Everybody knows Bud … used to run the wagon yard.”

Clark’s first foray into broadcasting also took place in 1929, at WRR in Dallas, where he and the bandleader Paul Wellbaum contracted for a weekly hour of airtime for a “hometown” program featuring local talent from surrounding communities.

“But bad luck was tailing me like an orphan calf tails a stray cow looking for adoption,” he wrote, “for it always rained on the same day our big program went on the air, and instead of hearing their advertising announcements and local talent, the home-towners heard a conglomeration of thunder and lightning condensed to static.”

Despite the failure, he found himself bitten by the broadcasting bug and turned to announcing re-creations of professional baseball games, a task for which he claimed to have “proved satisfactory,” having been a ballplayer himself.

WACO Radio Directory (Image)
Cottonseed, as Clark Fulks, listed as chief announcer at WACO in Waco, Texas, in the 1938 Radio Annual

Through the 1930s, Clark’s radio career took him “from one 100-watter to the next,” before he took on the role of script and continuity director in 1935 for a statewide network in Texas owned by Elliott Roosevelt, the son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The job lasted until November 1938 “at which time there was a vigorous shake-up of department heads. I was one of those vigorously shaken.”

In 1940, Clark ventured into Texas politics as campaign manager for “the most honest, God-fearing public official the state of Texas has ever known,” helping to get Olin Culberson elected as the state’s Railroad Commissioner.

“All I have to say about that experience,” Clark wrote, “is this: NEVER AGAIN!!!” The campaign took him to all 254 of Texas’ counties, but soured him on public participation in partisan politics for the remainder of his days.

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From whence did the “Cottonseed” moniker emanate? “Due to the lengthy narration involved of telling the story,” he wrote, “I will omit same.” Clark downplayed a New York newspaper’s story that it came about when, as a child, he would stuff cotton seeds in various orifices to the “frantic objections” of his parents.

One origin story, perhaps apocryphal — but colorful, nonetheless — accompanied the news in the April 27, 1942, edition of Broadcasting magazine that Clark was headed north to New York City to join NBC’s Blue Network, which would soon be spun off to become ABC:

COTTONSEED CLARK, formerly production manager of KFDM, Beaumont, Tex., … [has] joined the BLUE production staff. Clark was christened “Cottonseed” by Babe Ruth six years ago when he was broadcasting baseball games in Texas sponsored alternately by General Mills for Wheaties and the Cottonseed Mill.

From the expression “Over the Fence for Wheaties,” employed when a player hit a home run on a General Mills-sponsored game, Clark contrived a new one: “Over the Fence for Cottonseed.” The name stuck to him and he finally adopted it legally, changing from Clark Fulks.

(Note that in a 1955 item in the San Mateo Times, media columnist Bob Foster wrote that Clark “picked up the name Cottonseed when Babe Ruth couldn’t remember the rest of his name.”)

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Calling his brief Big Apple experience “worse than Texas politics,” Clark headed west to Los Angeles, where CBS executives asked him to “build us a western show” to serve as a replacement for Gene Autry’s popular “Melody Ranch” program, in the absence of the legendary singing cowboy (and licensed pilot), who had enlisted in the Army Air Force as a Flight Officer.

After barely ten days of planning, Clark debuted as producer and host of the Saturday night “Hollywood Barn Dance” across the regional CBS Pacific radio network in the western United States on December 4, 1943.

Featuring Foy Willing and The Riders of the Purple Sage as its “house band,” the program remained a staple of the network through 1948, broadcasting from its “barn” in Gower Gulch — which was actually the home of CBS’ flagship station in Los Angeles, KNX, and its network studios at Columbia Square on Sunset Boulevard.

The success of “Hollywood Barn Dance” opened up opportunities for Cottonseed to appear in a couple of movies — “Smoky River Serenade” (1947) and “The Arkansas Swing” (1948) — in which he played himself. Oddly enough, Clark did not appear in the 1947 movie “Hollywood Barn Dance,” which starred Ernest Tubb and was only loosely based on the radio program.

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In April 1949, Cottonseed parlayed his “Brushwood Poet” persona into another venture, recording two of his poems (with “Arlo at the Organ” providing the instrumental backing) for RCA Victor. Released on a 78-RPM shellac disc, the A-side featured “The Day That Pa Played Preacher,” with “Ma’s Galvanized Washing Tub” on the B-side.

Both poems had previously appeared in print in the first edition of his “Brushwood Poetry and Philosophy” soft-bound tome in 1945 but RCA chose to bill him as “Cottonseed Clark (The Country Poet)” for this release.

Here’s “The Day That Pa Played Preacher”:

 

Texarkana Baby (Folio Image)
Eddy Arnold on the cover of the “Texarkana Baby” sheet music folio.

Clark found significantly more songwriting success during this period with his authorship of one of the most popular country tunes of the era, “Texarkana Baby,” which became one of Eddy Arnold’s biggest early hits, reaching number one on Billboard’s “Best Selling Folk Records” chart in August 1948, and in the decades since has become one of the enduring standards in Country Music history.

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In 1950, Gil Bond, the commercial manager of the fledgling radio station KVSM (1050 AM) in San Mateo, Calif., took a quick flight to Hollywood, hoping that Cottonseed Clark might take a chance on the tiny daytime-only outlet. Bond offered Clark the opportunity to not only manage the station, which operated only from local sunrise to sunset, but to also be its primary announcer and advertising salesman.

KVSM, pumping out only 250 watts worth of power, couldn’t compete with the powerhouse network stations located up the Peninsula in San Francisco, but with Cottonseed in the driver’s seat, it quickly carved out a niche as the only station in the Bay Area playing nothing but Western Music.

California Hayride (Program Cover)Capturing an audience of like-minded Okie expatriates, Cottonseed also hosted dances at the original Napredak Hall in Santa Clara and elsewhere around the region, which he promoted on his radio program, which, in turn, led to another opportunity as host of the “Hoffman Hayride” TV program — taking over for Dude Martin — on KOVR (Channel 13), a station licensed to Stockton — just outside the Bay Area in San Joaquin County — but with a powerhouse signal that KOVeRed a vast segment of the region.

The program, re-branded as the “California Hayride,” later moved to KPIX (Channel 5) and KGO-TV (Channel 7) in the Bay Area.

Leafing through old newspapers during this era, without much effort one finds Cottonseed hosting live Hoffman or California Hayride variety shows at the Sonoma County Fair in Santa Rosa; the Fourth District Fair in Petaluma; the San Francisco State College gym; the Redwood City Rodeo; and, of course, at the first anniversary of Jerry’s Famous 19¢ Beefburgers in San Leandro.

Cottonseed Clark KVSM Ad (Image)
An ad for Cottonseed’s show on KVSM

Radio Ron, posting on the Butcher’s Floor blog, shared his memories of Cottonseed:

He was on KVSM for several years when the station broadcast out of its transmitter building at the foot of the old San Mateo Bridge. Cottonseed was sort of the unofficial “bridge greeter.” Drivers would be tuned into the station and honk their horn and Cottonseed would “wave them on through.”

KVSM San Mateo Map (Image)
A 1950s map of the San Mateo Bridge approach, showing KVSM along the right-of-way.

Cottonseed parlayed his role as the leading purveyor of Western Music in the Bay Area into yet another venture: his own western-themed night spot, appropriately dubbed Cotton’s Club, located on the El Camino Real in Belmont.

Cotton's Club Ad (Image)
Ads for the grand opening of Cotton’s Club on December 10, 1953

Cotton's Club Ad (Image)

The grand opening of Cotton’s Club on December 10, 1953, was a gala event, featuring Clark’s old buddies Tex Ritter and Merle Travis (and his wife, Judy Hayden1)  as special guests, along with performances by local favorites Big Jim DeNoon and His Haymakers, Dusty Dale, Marilyn Orlando and Eddie Dean.

The entire event was telecast live on the “Hoffman Hayride” and showed off the club’s large dance floor and “authentic western decorations,” including “some of the biggest sets of Texas longhorns in existence” and displays of vintage firearms, according to a San Mateo Times article heralding the venue’s debut.

The walls of the club were adorned with large photographs of Hoot Gibson, Gene Autry, Will Rogers, William S. Hart, Roy Rogers and other cowboy stars and entertainers from the proprietor’s personal collection. Cattle brands from local San Mateo County ranches and other famous western ranches were burned into the walls and bandstand, “lending a rustic appearance.”

Despite high hopes, the reign of Cotton’s Club was sadly short; it closed in May 1954, barely six months after its splashy grand opening, although Cottonseed reportedly continued doing his KVSM radio shows from the broadcast studio he had installed on the building’s second floor.

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After a change in ownership at KVSM at the end of 1954, Cottonseed jumped to KEEN (1370 AM), the popular San Jose station that over the years featured Red Murrell, Cal Smith, Foy Willing, Black Jack Wayne and other well-known Western Music entertainers turned disc jockeys.

After a two-year run on Radio KEEN, and with yet another change in ownership at KVSM, Cottonseed returned to the pint-sized Peninsula pea-shooter at the end of April 1957, along with his old Hoffman Hayride sidekick, Eddie Kirk, taking a seat in the newly-remodeled second-story studio — furnished by no less than the trendy designer and former Vaudevillian, Charles “Chic” Sale — upstairs at KVSM’s transmitter building along the San Mateo Bridge toll approach.

KEEN Transmitter (Photo)
KEEN’s transmitter building in San Jose

Augie, also commenting on the Butcher’s Floor blog, noted:

I remember Cottonseed Clark from my father listening to him on the radio when I was a kid in the early ’50s. My Dad was a gardener and worked seven days a week unless VERY sick or Christmas or raining heavily. When I hear Country Western music it still seems like it is raining outside. My Dad listened to radio KEEN here in San Jose. When a car went past they would honk, then Cottonseed would say “Howdy, honker!”

We went to see him in the studio once. It was basically a small concrete shack set way back from the old Oakland Road (13th Street). I remember we walked in the front door and there was an inner door where we could see him and wave from a window in the door. To the left was a baby alligator or crocodile in a big wash tub with a screen over the top.

Cottonseed Clark (Photo)
Cottonseed Clark (Circa 1950s)

(Augie’s memory may be very slightly faulty: Cottonseed would holler “Howdy, honker,” to those passing his San Mateo Bridge outpost; the KEEN transmitter shack was set far enough off of the road that the occasional car horn could hardly be heard.)

In the early 1960s, Clark hosted a Saturday afternoon music program on Oakland’s KTVU (Channel 2), and he also operated an advertising and marketing firm, Clark and Associates, based in San Jose.

He and Mozelle retired to Van Nuys, Calif., in 1985, and had moved to nearby Thousand Oaks several months before suffering a brain hemorrhage, the complications of which led to his death on January 9, 1992. Cottonseed Clark Fulks was 82 years old.

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— Text by The Cottonmouth Kid

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Footnotes:

  1. Her name is misspelled as “Judy Haydon” in the splashy ad for the opening night.

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