The Maddox Brothers & Rose - Biography
By Johnny Whiteside
In 1937, an untrained family of Alabama migrant workers took the first step in what became an artistic campaign that ultimately re-defined country music on the West Coast, popularized the use of gaudy, rhinestone emblazoned stage wear by hillbilly performers, kicked open the door for rockabilly and blazed a trail that allowed female artists the freedom to assert themselves as a commercial force in Nashville. The Maddox Brothers & Rose managed all this through sheer force of will, and if not for fast-talking 17 year old Fred Maddox‘s distaste for working in the cotton fields, it may never have happened at all.
The family had suffered through the very worst of the Great Depression. As sharecroppers outside Boaz, Alabama, life had always been one of hand-to-mouth poverty, and tired of the oppressive conditions imposed by landowners, they resolved to hitchhike to California (where the oldest of the boys, guitarist Cliff was already living), still perceived much as the wondrous Promised Land of the 1849 Gold Rush. Obtaining rides for a family of seven (parents Charlie and Lula, children Calvin, Henry, Fred, Kenneth and Roselea) wasn’t easy and they resorted to jumping freight trains, arriving in Glendale, California in 1933 and settling into an equally unappealing lifestyle, following crops as itinerant “fruit tramps,” until Fred boldly hustled up a radio program--for an act that did not yet exist.
Broadcasting a daily early morning slot on Modesto’s KTRB, the volume of fan mail received proved them an immediate success (“those cows wouldn‘t give any milk unless Maddox Bros. & Rose were on the radio,” one listener recalled). The fact that most of them were still learning to master their instruments and 12 year old vocalist Rose had never sung before, let alone faced a microphone, was irrelevant to the family and their audience. Through ceaseless appearances throughout California, spontaneously asking saloon owner’s permission to set up and play for tips, they came into their own and by 1939 won the California state fair’s best hillbilly band competition, which guaranteed a deal for steady airtime on the far-reaching McClatchy broadcasting system.
Sidelined by the brother’s service during WWII, the Maddox Brothers & Rose wasted no time in renewing their career. In 1946, outfitted in eye-popping wardrobe made by revered Van Nuys tailor Nathan Turk (who costumed Western stars Roy Rogers and Gene Autry), they invaded the offices of 4 Star Records, telling A&R man Don Pierce “We have selected you to record us.“ The Pasadena based label organized the first of many sessions, and the results were some extraordinarily unconventional examples of modern “Hillbilly-Folk,” as Billboard’s chart designation termed the music. The Maddoxes themselves used the tag ‘hillbilly swing’ and became widely known an the Most Colorful Hillbilly Band in America.
That did not merely refer to their wardrobe--the family’s stage show was legendary, involving a trunk full of gag and novelty props, masks, sometimes even performing with an outhouse set piece on stage. Their music encompassed everything from gospel, blues, old-timey, boogie, pop, Western, jazz, low honky tonk and hot rockabilly; on heavy rhythm numbers Rose would play her own bass fiddle, and with Fred’s self-taught slapping style, it gave them a bottom end that made drums, which they only later occasionally used in the studio, redundant. Rough hewn and hard charging, the Maddoxes' style was a dizzying amalgam of American vernacular music, with an emphasis on the most up to date material and supercharged arrangements of old fashioned and familiar numbers. Their records had an almost chaotic edge, with the brothers non-stop hollering and Fred's running, acid-tongued commentary jockeying for listener attention.
Traveling in a fleet of black Cadillac's, covering insane distances from show to show (yet always returning to Modesto for that early morning slot, where they’d ballyhoo future bookings), they became the most in-demand, highest paid and biggest drawing act in California, capable of pulling more than 5000 attendees on a weeknight anywhere on the West Coast. In early 1949, on the strength of “Gathering Flowers for the Master’s Bouquet” their biggest selling record to date, they were invited to appear on the Grand Ole Opry. At the time, most Opry stars wore either plain business suits or hayseed bib & tucker gear, and the Maddoxes' Turk stage-wear made a deep impression on the Nashville set. Later that year, Hank Williams, who had already written a song for Rose ("How Can You Refuse Him Now?") came to Los Angeles, asked promoter Marty Landau to summon her--Williams waited several hours--and lavished her with praise. The Maddoxes were, inarguably, the most artistically influential band on the West Coast.
Such recognition was both gratifying and inevitable. Rose’s powerhouse declarative vocal style and fearless choice of material placed her at country music’s forefront. She regularly addressed such matters as divorce and drunkenness (hear “Pay Me Alimony” and “Hangover Blues”) without the slightest hesitation , and these were, for a girl singer, essentially taboo ("She's like Kay Starr--with balls," Capitol A&R man Cliffie Stone observed). The brothers were just as care-free when it came to propriety and decorum and musically, they continually added whatever it took to beef up the sound, using hired hands Bud Duncan on steel and guitarist Jimmy Winkle. Winkle’s replacement, in late 49, was Roy Nichols, the acclaimed ax-man who went on to work with Lefty Frizzell, Wynn Stewart and played lead guitar for Merle Haggard for twenty years. Nichols was just sixteen, but Fred Maddox became his legal guardian, and the Maddox sound quickly assumed a far greater complexity and deeper artistic drive with the addition of Nichols’ peerless guitar take-offs. Fired the following year by the family's notoriously strong-willed, hard-headed mama-manager Lula (she had previously banished eldest brother Cliff from the band), they brought in another San Joaquin Valley teenager Gene Breeden, who continued to explore--as much as Lula would allow, the progressive California sound proposed by Jimmy Bryant and Nichols.
The band signed to Columbia Records in the early 50's (4 Star never paid anyone on their roster) and continued their pursuit of high-volume, unconventional honky-tonk frolic that clearly anticipated the dawn of rock & roll. Regulars on the KWKH Louisiana Hayride circa 1953-55, the Maddoxes witnessed the rise of Elvis Presley, frequently touring with Presley on Hayride package shows, and unlike most established country stars, who loathed the Memphis Flash, they dug him, because his rockabilly sound was completely familiar--they'd been playing it for twenty years already. By 1956, the band was so popular that Columbia held three separate contracts on them: one for the Maddox Brothers & Rose, one for Rosie & Retta, her duet act with Henry's wife, and a solo contract on Rose herself. Longstanding, egocentric tension between spotlight hogs Rose and Fred finally boiled over and Rose left to perform a “single", (taking Cal with her) in 1956, effectively breaking up the band. The brothers carried on using Retta as fill-in, but it was a short lived venture. While Rose enjoyed a long career, moving on to Capitol for her greatest success in the mid-60's, the era of the Maddox Brothers & Rose came to a regrettably unhappy end. Years later, Fred and Rose buried the hatchet and worked together extensively, but by 2008, the only surviving member of the band was fiddler Don Juan (nee Kenneth) who had recently returned to performing after a four decade retirement.