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The Rockabilly Pioneers of…Modesto?
by Martin Reed

Modesto and rock music go way back, of course – maybe even all the way back. By some accounts, the very roots of rock once thrived here in the persons of the Maddox Brothers & Rose, “America’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band.”

The Maddoxes were a family of freight-jumpin', fruit-trampin', string-pickin' Alabamans who rode the rails to California's Central Valley in 1933. After settling in Modesto, they formed a musical act with 11-year-old sister Rose in the vocal spotlight. With a level of energy and flamboyance seldom seen in their day, the group became fast favorites on stage, radio, and record. By the approach of the 1950s, they were banging out a racket scarcely distinguishable from the one dubbed "rockabilly" some five years later.

"They ought to name a street out there after 'em," says the similarly legendary Glen Glenn, who played and sang with the last vestiges of the Maddox combo for most of 1957. "They were from Modesto…and without the Maddox Brothers, there wouldn't be no rockabilly."

Although a draft notice put the brakes on Glenn's own bid for stardom in 1958, his scant recorded output found an enthusiastic audience during the rockabilly resurgence of the late 1970s and '80s. These days, he often finds himself courted by rock royalty but reserves his highest praise for that little- known hillbilly band, the Maddox Brothers & Rose.

"They were the best group I've ever seen in my life…I idolized 'em. I still do, and I'm 70-some years old! They were showmen…Have you heard their music? Their old 4-Star stuff? Man, when they got on stage, they were doing rock & roll before they even knew there was a rock & roll. They were doing it in the '40s."

Consider, for example, the opening track of "The Maddox Brothers & Rose Vol. 1" (Arhoolie CD 391), which kicks off with a shout-out to the Central Valley: "There's a real hot spot on the Waterloo Road," sings Rose…Waterloo Road in Stockton. The rollicking "George's Playhouse Boogie" is about a rowdy nightclub at that locale, where the band played regularly. Early stirrings of rock can be heard here, as on at least five other songs in this collection of highlights from the group's 1946 to '51 tenure with 4-Star Records.

"I'll tell you, there's a book," says Glen Glenn. "I think you can get it on the internet. It tells a lot about the Maddoxes – a hardcover book about Rose Maddox."

Ramblin' Rose, by Jonny Whiteside (Country Music Foundation Press/Vanderbilt Press, 1997), is indeed a fine introduction. Thumbing through its pages, an area resident will recognize a procession of towns and landmarks.

Here is Modesto’s South 9th Street, where 18-year-old Fred Maddox convinces a business owner to sponsor the group on radio while wangling a standup bass fiddle for himself. Never mind that he can’t play; he’ll just slap the strings, creating an exciting percussive effect.

Fabulous once more is the Strand Theater, remembered, perhaps, as a derelict building with the moxie to proclaim "Modern and Fireproof" every day of its condemned life.
Here again is the Assembly of God in Riverbank, the scene of a tug-of-war between the Holy Rollers and Rose Maddox for the soul of Jimmy Winkle, Rose's lead guitarist and steady flame (the Holy Rollers won).

Author Whiteside's description of Modesto continues a tired tradition of dismissals and slights ("scorched and moribund," he offers), but he also reveals a bygone character of this region, that of a cultural crossroads where the Maddoxes could rub shoulders with Roy Rogers, Woody Guthrie, Bob Wills, and a host of Steinbeckian sorts.

While other hillbilly bands played to type, dressing like hayseeds and working predictable cornball comedy into their act, the Maddoxes, being the genuine article, were ill-equipped to draw this caricature. They channeled their earnings into the flashiest western wear they could find and gave their own boisterous humor free rein onstage.

Paradoxically, they found immediate favor with both radio and live audiences, and when, in 1939, they entered a hillbilly band contest at the State Fair, they took top honors. Their prize was a one-year series of shows on KFBK radio in Sacramento, syndicated over several northwestern states.

With the advent of World War II, the band's future fell into doubt, as several of the brothers were spirited off to distant lands. By 1946, however, the entire family was back in Modesto, and the group (singer Rose, mandolinist Henry, fiddler Don, bassist Fred, guitarist Cal, and all-arounder Cliff) was immediately reformed along radical new lines. In the space of this year, they hired two outside musicians (steel guitarist Bud Duncan and lead guitarist Jimmy Winkle), went electric, embraced the boogie, and began making records.

Fred and Cal, pitching the boogie to older brother Cliff, issued a cry which, in coming decades, would be taken up by the nation and then the world: "We have got to have that beat!" Without so much as a drummer, they caught the beat and rode it. As Fred would tell Jonny Whiteside, "People couldn't stand still – they had to dance."

Through the end of the 1940s, the band continued to call Modesto home while touring the country and releasing such electrifying fare as "Water Baby Blues," "Hangover Blues," and "Step It Up and Go." By this time, according to folklorist Charlie Seeman (interviewed on National Public Radio in 2003), they were "the leading edge of rockabilly, with that slapped bass sound that Fred Maddox had developed."

Soon enough, a pre-iconic Elvis Presley was rocking the country & western world, and the Maddoxes (now under contract to Columbia and based in Hollywood) were right beside him. All were co-residents on KWKH radio's "Louisiana Hayride," even sharing the occasional concert bill.

One can almost see the wheels turning in Elvis' head as he eyes the group's shiny Cadillacs and tries on Fred's pink jacket. (Lula “Mama” Maddox – an ever-present disciplinarian – made him take it off!)

But rock & roll, by 1956, had no use for elder statesmen or elder anything, and the Maddox Brothers & Rose were summarily eclipsed by the very music they had helped to pioneer. Fred, Don, and Henry soldiered on for another year, with Henry's wife Loretta (aka Retta) assuming lead vocal duties. It was during this period that Glen Glenn was pressed into service.

"Fred's wife, Kitty Maddox, called me on the phone," recalls Glenn, "because I was still doing country music around Southern California. I worked with them all through '57, with the Maddox Brothers & Retta. Then I think it was about the last part of '57 that Henry and Retta, they wanted to quit the group, and then Don Maddox…he saved all his money, so he moved up and got a big ranch in Oregon. So all that was left was Fred and me. So there was no more Maddox Brothers; that was the end of it."

In the wake of the neo-rockabilly craze in the late 1970's, the classic recordings of the Maddox Brothers & Rose would find new life on anthologies and eventually comprehensive reissues on the Arhoolie and Bear Family labels.

In 1994, Rose Maddox received a Grammy nomination for her bluegrass album, "$35 and a Dream." Her health was failing by this time, and she died in 1998, leaving Don as the sole surviving musical Maddox.

Always revered by country and rock insiders, Rose and her brothers found increasing favor with the public in absentia and were even the subjects of a 2002 stage production, "Mad. Bros. & Rose: A Rockabilly Revue."

So, was a musical revolution really taking shape in this "small, flat, dusty, sleepy city" in and around the 1940s? How reliable are claims like those of Glenn Mueller, a fellow traveler of the Maddoxes, who wrote for the Rockabilly Hall of Fame that “rockabilly may have started with a Modesto, California-based family”?

Track down one of the Arhoolie collections and judge for yourself. Hear the frantic tempos, the breathless vocals, and the stinging, snarling guitar sounds (often an electric mandolin!) that would become hallmarks of later times. You might just be moved to speculate…Modesto, a possible launch pad for rockabilly and, by extension, a big chunk of rock & roll. Sleepy like a slow fuse!