They promoted themselves as «The Most Colorful Hillbilly Group In America », and no one would deny that their various western stage outfits emcompassed all the hues of the rainbow. They were a reasonably talented bunch of singers and, albeit rudimentory musicians, they were filled with an endless stream of adrenaline, a riotous sense of humour and vitality, which was leavened with just the right blend of musical exuberance. In Rose Maddox the band had a totally atypical female vocalist. No shy retiring song thrush she, Rose had grown up the rough edge of town, she was street wise and took no shit from anyone. Her whole demeanour was a gal who would smack you one in the mouth if you stepped out of line.
Lula was the driving force and very much the dominant personality in the Maddox clan. With some rudimentary musical ability within the family, the 18-year-old Fred (born 1919), glib of tongue, persuaded the family to form the Alabama Outlaws, and got them on as guests on radio KGDM. The Rice Furniture Company in Modesto, California, got them a country music show on KTRB in 1936. The group set out to earn money by playing live dates until 1941. Then Fred, Cal and Don were called up for military service. Cliffwas exempt and Henry was under age. With Rose playing bass, the Trio continued playing dates. She married (divorced after 6 months) and, with a child to raise, she throw herself wholeheartedly into making a living from the music. The boys returned from forces around the end of 1945. Lula and Rose were given the job of getting the Maddox Brothers & Rose on records, and armed with a couple of acetates cut at KTRB, they set to Pasadena and Bill McCall, owner of Four Star Records. He was impressed with Rose, not the Maddox Brothers, but Rose told him it was all or nothing. So the group first recorded in 1947 « Milkcow blues », Hank Thompson’s « Whoa sailor » and « Mean and Wicked Boogie ». They put in a definitive permance on Hank Williams’ « Honky Tonkin’ » and did justice to Hank’s « Move It On Over ». « Mama Says It’s Naughty » and « New Mule Skinner Blues » also came from that period, which capture the essence of
Guitar players with the group frequently changed : Jimmy Winkle, Gene LeMasters, then in 1949 Roy Nichols. Early in 1950, Fred led the group on the raucous « Shimmy Shakin’ Daddy », whilst Rose took the honours on « (Pay Me) Alimony ». The steel-guitar player Bud Duncan was sacked in Texas after getting romantically involved with Rose. So the band never used a steel guitarist on stage again. 1951 saw other releases like « Texas Guitar Stomp », « New Step It Up And Go », « Why Not Confess » and « Hangover Blues ». Some were leased to Decca, some to King. After a year with the group Roy Nichols fell fool of the autocratic Lula Maddox and departed. Within a year or two he was playing for Lefty Frizzell ; before his departure, he recommended a successor, 15-year old Gene Breeden.
When the 4-Star recording contract was nearing to completion, Art Satherley signed the group up to Columbia. A legal wrangle ensued, but in the end McCall lost out. The group recorded their first session for Columbia in January 1952, and Satherley decided to bring in Joe Maphis on guitar and Wesley Tuttle on bass, only allowing Cal Maddox to play the rhythm guitar. Because their style was so primitive and basic, sophisticated musicians like Maphis and Tuttle found it impossible to blend it successfully. So Satherley did hand over to Don Law after this first session. The following ones were held in Dallas at Jim Beck’s studio, which produced « The Hiccough Song », « I’ll Make Sweet Love To You » and a superb version of the Carlisles’ « No Help Wanted », with some inspired mandolin from Henry Maddox. Gene Breeden was never allowed by Columbia to play on any of the sessions. « Columbia didn’t want us like we was. We had to use the staff band they had », Fred summed.
1953 saw the first solo recording by Rose in Nashville with members of Hank Williams’ Drifting Cowboys, including Jerry Rivers on fiddle (« I’m A Little Red Caboose »), while the material the group cut ran the gamut, as did their live shows : from pure hillbilly to western group singing tunes, to novelty songs, ballads of tragedy, and fiery hillbilly boogie. It was as if they were throwing something against the wall to see what would stick.
Beginning in 1955 the group recorded a session at Jim Beck’s studio in Dallas without the aide of any outside musician, which offers a great glimpse into what they must have sounded like live. « I Gotta Go Get My Baby », « No More Time » and their autobiographical « I’ve Got Four Big Brothers (To Look After Me )» are all masterpieces. A second Rose solo recording of February 1955 illustrates what a musical pioneer she was, covering Ruth Brown’s « Wild Wild Young Men » and oozing pure rockabilly (with hot licks courtesy of Maddox alumni Roy Nichols on guitar and future guitar string magnate Ernie Ball on steel guitar). A December 1955 session (with Merle Travis on guitar) produced the rocking « Hey Little Dreamboat », firmly establishing Rose as the first female to cut rockabilly music.
The Brothers’ most fondly remembered moment came from the session in August 1956 that produced three of their best numbers, « Ugly And Slouchy », « Paul Bunyan Love » and « The Death of Rock’n’Roll ». « Ugly And Slouchy » is Fred Maddox’s finest moment, an ode to the joys of having an unattractive mate because « there’s never any fear of her loving someone else ». Fred’s wild bass slapping dominates all three songs, most notably on the frantic « The Death Of Rock’n’Roll ». As previously mentioned, the Maddox Brothers farce, meant as a parody of rock’n’roll, has since become their best loved tune in rockabilly circles, and with good reason –The Maddoxes could rock with the best of them.
Rose cut more great rocking material in Nashville in November of 1956 with Joe Maphis tagging along from the West Coast on guitar, including the phenomenal rockabilly killer « I’ll Go Steppin’ Too ». The last Maddox Brothers & Rose sessions took place in the spring and the fall of 1957, and again showcased some of their finest moments, including the favorites « Stop Whistlin’ Wolf » and « Let Me Love You », both considered Maddox Brothers standards today, as well as an odd but groovy cover of Mickey & Sylvia’s « Love Is Strange », with nice bluesy guitar licks courtesy of Billy Strange.
After this session, the writing was on the wall for the group that had been playing together as a unit since the late 1930s. Rose had been recording solo sessions for several years, and the brothers had grown up tired of living under Mama Maddox’s extreme control. When Columbia dropped the group and Rose in 1958, the brothers and their sister went separate ways. Although Cal and Henry would occasionnally record and tour with Rose, the family group officially disbanded and never again recorded together. Fred Maddox attempted to keep the group going with Henry’s wife Loretta (billed as the Maddox Bros. and Retta), augmented by rockabilly singer Glen Glenn, but after a year or two, the public rejected the new line-up. Don Maddox enrolled in agricultural college, moved up to Oregon and quit the music business. Rose continued to record until 1996, before her death in 1998 (see discography).
Biography based on the notes of Deke Dickerson (« Ugly & Slouchy », Bear Family 16796) and Adam Komorowski (« That’ll Learn Ya Durn Ya », Proper 2075)