Jeff Jardine

Jeff Jardine: Living legend Don Maddox to be honored at Modesto Area Music Awards

Don Maddox, 90, is the last surviving member of the Maddox Brothers and Rose band that in 1937 helped create the beat considered a steppingstone toward rock and roll. He is receiving a lifetime achievement award at the Modesto Area Music Awards on Wednesday, Oct. 23, at the State Theatre
Don Maddox, 90, is the last surviving member of the Maddox Brothers and Rose band that in 1937 helped create the beat considered a steppingstone toward rock and roll. He is receiving a lifetime achievement award at the Modesto Area Music Awards on Wednesday, Oct. 23, at the State Theatre

As the story goes, The Maddox Brothers and Rose – right here in Modesto in 1937 – invented the rockabilly beat that became the foundation of rock ’n’ roll.

“That’s the legend,” Don Maddox told me last week. “I don’t see it. But if they want to give us the credit, I’ll take it. We did our thing, hillbilly music.”

He’s the band’s only surviving member, and went to the Country Music Hall of Fame as a panelist for a discussion in Nashville last year. Last week, he went back there again – this time to be interviewed for a Ken Burns documentary on country music that will eventually air on PBS.

“It took eight hours to get there,” Maddox said. “They put me in a spotlight for two and a half hours, asked me questions, and then I got on a plane to fly back home. I’m frazzled. The show won’t be out until 2018. I’m almost 91 (Dec. 7). At my age, I won’t get to see it if it don’t come out before then.”

All of this attention and hoopla, of course, makes him a country and western star.

“Well,” he said, “if that’s what people want to believe, let ’em.”

And because they created the rockabilly beat in the 1930s that influenced not only country stars Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, but also rock ’n’ roll, wouldn’t that make The Maddox Brothers and Rose legends?

“I didn’t think we were legends,” Maddox said. “Now, people do. If they want to believe that, let ’em.”

A chat with Don Maddox is a ride through music history, the Dust Bowl era and a window into the generation of music The Maddox Brothers and Rose helped invent. He tells it with a homespun dose of humor and humility, and will even sing you a lyrical line or two in the process.

Maddox will be the guest of honor at Wednesday night’s Modesto Area Music Awards, where he’ll receive a lifetime achievement award. And he’ll bring his fiddle to play a free show Thursday night at The Brewhouse at Hero’s in downtown Modesto.

Kenneth “Don” Maddox was the fourth of six children born to sharecroppers Charles and Lulu Maddox in Boaz, Ala. In 1933, the landowner suddenly ended the sharecropping arrangement and evicted the family. They decided to go West.

“We sold our worldly possessions and made $35,” Maddox said. “We started walking from Boaz to California.”

When they reached Meridian, Miss., they met up with people who took them to the railyard and taught them how to hop trains.

“Woody Guthrie wrote a song, ‘California is the Garden of Eden.’ We were all going to California, all broke and desperate in 1933,” Maddox said. “We’d heard stories about California, but when we got here, we found out that all the gold in California was in the ‘bank in the middle of Beverly Hills in somebody else’s name.’” (He sang that last part to me.)

They made it to Bakersfield, but didn’t stay. Instead, they went on to Oakland and found shelter in a camp called Pipe City.

“They sealed one end of the culvert pipes for homeless people – and we were homeless – to live in,” Maddox said. “Pipe City had a mayor and a tent for city hall.”

They just wanted to work, his parents told the city’s “mayor.”

“He called the (Oakland Tribune) and a photographer came over and took our picture,” Maddox said. “The next morning, it was in the newspaper. When I was back in Nashville for the Country Music Hall of Fame, they had a picture of The Maddox Brothers and Rose, and one of the newspaper clippings.”

The family moved to Modesto, and then to Tuolumne County to strike it rich.

“There were some empty cabins because the logging mills were shut down during the Depression,” he said. “A guy up there let us live in one of the cabins for free. We found out the gold in Tuolumne was already panned out. Between us, we panned 87 cents’ worth of gold.”

So his father hitchhiked to Modesto and stopped by a farmhouse along the way, hoping the farmer would spare a meal. The farmer did, and hired Maddox’s dad to pick peaches. The family soon joined him. Don was about 12 at the time. He also earned money hawking The Bee on Modesto’s street corners.

About that same time, older brother Fred found himself fascinated by music. Brothers Cliff and Cal already played guitar. “He’d been running around going to the Okie dances and he liked to watch the guys play the bass fiddle,” Don said of Fred. “He came home and Cliff and Cal were practicing. He told them, ‘If you’ll let me be the manager and announcer, I’ll get you some jobs.’”

They agreed and decided to call themselves the Alabama Outlaws. Fred approached KTRB in 1937. That’s where Modesto’s Cecil Lynch, who went on to become one of the most respected radio station engineers in the nation, worked. I profiled him in a column in March. Lynch died Sept. 5 at 102.

Anyway, KTRB’s station manager told Fred he’d have to find a sponsor, because the station itself didn’t pay talent to perform. “He went to Rice Furniture and conned them into sponsoring the show,” Don said. “He got enough from Rice to buy a bass fiddle. He didn’t know how to play it, so he just slapped it. That’s how he got the rhythm out of the bass fiddle.”

That rhythm is what became the foundation of the rockabilly beat and precursor to rock ’n’ roll, many believe. “He didn’t do that intentionally,” Maddox said. “But people gave him credit.”

The Rice furniture people, meanwhile, imposed a condition: They wanted the group to have a female singer.

“Fred told them, ‘We’ve got the best woman singer around,’” Don said. It was their sister, Rose, though at 11 she was a few years shy of being considered a woman.

“And she’d never sung before,” Don said.

No matter. She was a hit. Don said he didn’t join the band in earnest until he returned from the service in 1945. The band changed its name to the Maddox Brothers and Rose and stayed together for more than a decade, with a strict and driven mom keeping them in line.

“When we were playing a dance, we weren’t allowed to have anything to do with the groupies,” Don said. “We went back to the motel to get some sleep before we got up to drive 500 miles to the next gig.”

After Cliff died in 1949, the youngest Maddox, Henry, joined the band. They left Modesto in 1950 and headed to Hollywood to play the clubs and try to break into the movies. When that didn’t pan out, they began touring Texas and Louisiana, playing the Louisiana Hayride which, at the time, was considered a prelude to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. They earned recording contracts with 4-Star and later Columbia Records, with “The Most Colorful Hillbilly Band in America” among their best-selling albums.

Though the Maddox Brothers and Rose broke up officially in 1956, they recorded their final album together a year later. Why did the band disband?

“Mother wouldn’t allow any drinking,” Don Maddox said. “We’d just played a club in San Angelo, Texas, and there was Fred walking across the parking lot with a six-pack of beer. She loaded up Cal and Rose, and headed for California.”

Rose then went to Nashville to begin her career as a solo artist at the Grand Ole Opry. Don figured he was out of the music business for good.

“I wasn’t a good enough fiddle player for other bands,” Don said. Instead, life as a cattle baron beckoned. He took ag courses in Canoga Park and in 1958 bought a 300-acre cattle ranch near Ashland, Ore.

“I broke even in cattle,” Don said. “I made money in investments.”

He found the riches as a businessman that eluded the family as musicians. He gave Cal, who died in 1968, and Rose, who died 30 years later, each five acres of his ranch. But they showed none of his business acumen. “The rest of the Maddox Brothers and Rose all died poor, just like they started,” he said.

Don’s first wife died about 10 years ago. He remarried in 2010, and his new “child bride,” 72-year-old Barbara, engineered his return to show business. “I’d been out of entertainment for nearly 50 years,” he said. “Nobody knew me from Adam.”

No matter. He began performing again. Wednesday night, he’ll be honored as a star, a legend and as the last member of the first band to create the rockabilly beat that influenced so many others.

“And if people want to believe that,” Maddox said, “let ’em. I guess I’m a legend now.”

Maddox will play at Hero’s Sports Lounge, 821 L St. in Modesto, beginning at 7p.m. Thursday.