Our story today begins in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression where thousands of small farmers, especially those known as sharecroppers (that is, they worked the fields for the property owner in return for a percentage of the crop) were driven from their land by great dust storms and greedy Wall Street bankers (sound familiar?), migrated west with hopes of a new life in California. Meet Charlie and Lulla Maddox of Boas, Alabama, who in desperation, set out west hitchhiking and riding the rails, with their five small children in tow:, Cal (born 1915), Fred (born 1919), Don (born 1922), Rose (born 1925) and Henry (born 1928), their eldest child Cliff, born 1912 would join them later. With the help of fellow travelers (one of whom they crossed paths with was Woody Guthrie) a boxcar eventually deposited them in California’s San Joaquin Valley, where they found work as “fruit tramps”, following the crop around, picking at three cents a box. The entire family worked the fields following the seasonal harvest. This they did for several years until 1937 when Fred Maddox, who “never could stand to work” but was blessed with a hustler’s tongue and could “sell anything to anyone” talked himself onto a morning radio show on KTRB out of Modesto, California. He was given the job on the promise that he could provide a female singer, which Fred assured the radio executives that he not only had a female singer, but his group had in fact “the best female singer”, which arguably enough, was true. Gathering up his brothers Cliff on mandolin, Don on fiddle, Cal on guitar, and the 11 going on 12 year old Rose as lead singer (Fred himself acquired a stand up bass that he could hardly play, using it mostly as a drum), the Maddox Brothers & Rose were born as a musical entity. So begins the tale of what would become the wildest, most exuberant hillbilly band in the whole history of music.
The radio show pay was shitty but it spread their name far and wide and allowed them to find live work, performing at road houses, honky tonks and rodeos, often they were paid only in tips, but hell, it beat picking fruit. In 1939 they won a state wide talent contest sponsored by Anacin pain reliever and were proclaimed California’s Best Hillbilly Band and were also rewarded with a syndicated radio program that spread their name all over the West Coast and South West.
Unfortunately, three of the four brothers were drafted in World War II, fortunately they all survived, (sadly enough, Cliff who was exempted from the draft because he had rheumatic fever as a child would pass away in 1949 from ongoing complications from the disease). Although they kept going (Rose took over the bass for a bit) they wouldn’t fully reassemble until 1946 (after Cliff’s death he was replaced by baby brother Henry). With the addition of Roy Nicholas on lead guitar (later longtime star of Merle Haggard’s Strangers) and Bud Duncan on steel guitar, by this time they had become seasoned professionals, outfitted in outlandishly spangled duds by N. Turk of Hollywood (Nudie was considered too conservative for their tastes) and had taken to billing themselves as “The World’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band”– and so they were. The music they made was wild and anarchic, their stage act full of much ad libbed goofing off, bizarre comedy, sound effects and all manner of mania. They sounded like no other group before or since, much of their output was pure rock’n’roll, a decade before most of America had heard of such a thing.
In 1946 they signed with Fred Foster and Don Pierce’s independent 4-Star label, the story of which is told in much detail in John Broven’s essential book Record Makers and Breakers: Voices Of The Independent Rock’n’Roll Pioneers (University of Illinois Press, 2009). In the five years they recorded for 4-Star, the Maddox Brothers and Rose created a musical canon like no other, in fact, a case could be made for them inventing white rock’n’roll (but not by me, I personally think rock’n’roll was invented by cavemen beating on rocks). In addition to country ballads, folk songs and hymns they waxed such high enery hillbilly exotica and proto-rockabilly as Shimmy Shakin’ Daddy, Mean and Wicked Boogie, Texas Guitar Stomp, Water Baby Boogie, Hangover Blues, New Muleskinner Blues, not to mention beating Elvis to Milkcow Blues by five years, and reviving Blind Boy Fuller’s Step It Up and Go as a full on, hellbent, guitar stomp.
They were among the first to record tunes by their pals Hank Williams, recording his Move It On Over and Honky Tonkin‘ (in fact, Hank’s final recordings were done in Fred Maddox’s living room) and Woody Guthrie whose Philadelphia Lawyer was the closest they ever got to having a hit record. 4-Star would eventually lease some of these sides to Decca, King and all manner of weird budget labels, which is where I discovered them in the .99 cent bin as a teenager.
In 1949 the Maddox Brothers & Rose were finally invited to appear on the Grand Ole Opry.
After humpin’ it all the way to Nashville in their string of road weary Cadillacs, Fred had an argument with the Opry’s management over who would announce the songs (Fred usually did it, the Opry wanted Rose), Fred refused to budge and they packed up and left town without ever playing the Opry. They never would, and they still aren’t in the Country Music Hall Of Fame as a result. They did however appear on the Louisiana Hayride, where Hank Williams had been banished after the Opry dismissed him for acting like himself.
Through it all the Maddox Brothers & Rose kept up their radio appearances, moving from Modesto to Hollywood then finally to Bakersfield, California. They appeared on KTRB, KFBK,
KFWB (Hollywood), and KGDM (Stockton), making their sponsor– Regal Pale Beer very happy. From some dodgy sounding transcriptions here is some live radio broadcast material– Step It Up & Go, Water Baby Boogie, Tennesse Ernie Ford’s Shotgun Boogie, Jack Guthrie’s Okie Boogie, Jimmie Rodgers’ Muleskinner Blues, the old classic My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It and their theme song– I Want To Live and Love. You sure don’t hear folks having that much fun on the radio these days.
In 1951 the big time came calling in the guise of Columbia Records (whose president Mitch Miller hated rock’n’roll so much he said he’d never sign a rock’n’roll act although Ronnie Self somehow slipped through). Columbia signed Maddox Brothers & Rose as a group and also Rose Maddox as a solo artist. Their Columbia sides are only slightly less demented than their 4-Star output, highlights of these years (1951-56) are rockers like A Short Life and It’s Trouble,
Ugly & Slouchy, a cover of Mickey & Sylvia’s Love Is Strange, the wonderful South (“Roy Nicholas play that thang!”), and perhaps their masterpiece, and prophetic swansong– The Death Of Rock’n’Roll (actually a cover of Ray Charles’ I Got A Woman) recorded the year of Elvis’ breakthrough– 1956. The best of Rose’s solo output at Columbia to my ears is her version of Ruth Brown’s Wild Wild Young Men.
In 1956, after twenty years on the road and ten years of recording without a major hit the Maddox Brothers & Rose called it quits. Fred bought a nightclub, Don went into cattle ranching and Cal stayed with Rose whose solo career lasted until her death in 1998. Ken Nelson signed her to Capitol in the late 50’s (to hear one of her great duets with Buck Owens check out my Buck posting from last month), and her first Capitol LP– The One Rose features many remakes of material originally recorded with her brothers and is her best solo LP in my opinion.
The Maddox Brothers & Rose were probably too extreme for their time, or our time for that matter. Their sound was that of white hot guitars, sawing fiddle and galloping slap bass driving Rose’s voice which was a fiery instrument full of yelps and growls, so much so that she makes Patsy Cline sound like so much old dishwater. With her brothers braying like mules, screaming, cackling, and whooping in the background, these records were not exactly radio friendly, especially considering they were released at a time that Nashville was adding strings and the Anita Kerr singers on every record they could. That’s okay, they remain among the greatest country records ever released, and in a day and age when fat head Garth Brooks and his goofy head set passes as country music, everyone should hear these sides. There’s nothing else that compares. Don Maddox is the only remaining member of the group, the aforementioned Cliff passed in 1949, Cal went in ’68, Henry in ’74, Fred died in ’92 and Rose passed in 1998, she was making great music right up until her final months. Too bad I couldn’t find any live footage to go along with this post, if anyone knows of any, please let me know, I’d love to add some. If you’re into that sort of thing Fred Maddox’s bass is at Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen’s Experience Project Museum in Seattle with a sign on it that says something to the effect that the first note of rock’n’roll might have been played on the thing.
ESSENTIAL MADDOX BROTHERS & ROSE: Arhoolie has two CD’s worth of 4-Star material and another CD of radio airchecks available, your life is incomplete without them. Bear Family has re-isssued the Columbia sides as well as Rose’s solo Columbia material. I’m not sure if Rose’s One Rose Capitol LP ever made it to CD but it’s one to keep an eye peeled for. If ever a group was begging to compiled in a box set it is the Maddox Brothers & Rose. Write Bear Family and demand one.