The following is the second of nine tracks on an annotated mix-tape exploring the Bluegrass Scene of my home, San Diego County. Click the link and read along.
-Maddox Brothers and Rose (Late 1940’s)
This recording, made just across the border at XERB radio station in Rosarito Beach, Baja, marks an interesting point in the career of the Maddox Brothers and Rose. Since 1937, the siblings (Cal, Cliff, Don, and their sister Rose) had been flooding the airways with their genre blending radio shows. By the time of this recording, the group had found a regular recording gig with the already infamous 4-Star Records in Los Angeles. It was through 4-Star that the group found themselves broadcasting on the AM border blaster throughout the entire western half of the United States.
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Their high energy performances and distinctive style earned them the titles of “California’s Best Hillbilly Band” and “America’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band” from the 30’s through the 50’s. The latter name can be attributed either to the group’s colorful wardrobe designed by Hollywood designer Nathan Turk (think Roy Rodgers and Gene Autry) or to their raucous stage shows that often featured lewd jokes, suggestive lyrics, and plenty of dancing. It was this last element that prompted a somewhat bitter, up and coming Patsy Cline to remark after Rose was asked to follow Cline’s performance in Oceanside:
“If I got up and shook like she does, why I’d be as popular as she is!”
But their energy paid off in a big way. It was precisely their “color,” along with their unique proto-rockabilly (Fred Maddox is often credited with originating the slap bass technique back in 1937) that has since sparked some interesting comparisons with Elvis Presley and other early rock musicians.
This style may have worked for the band out west, but it clashed uncomfortably with many eastern audiences, notably the Grand Ole Opry, which was shocked by Rose’s exposed midriff in their first performance in 1949. After a brief stint in Nashville, the group ultimately felt unwelcome. They left the Opry and were never asked to return.
But what does any of this have to do with San Diego? The Maddox Brothers and Rose, like many Californian families, are not “originally” from California. Rose and her family hitchhiked from Boaz, Alabama (part of Appalachia according to the ARC!) to Los Angeles, California to escape a life of sharecropping. After a few years of working odd jobs and following the crops up and down the Great Central Valley from Sacramento to Yuma, 18-year-old brother Fred Maddox arranged for the siblings to play a daily hour-long radio slot out of Modesto. San Diego Troubadour writer Lyle Duplessie tells it best:
“As the story goes, he went into Rice’s Furniture Store looking for a prospective sponsor. The owner, Jim Rice, was willing to give the band a chance, but only if they had a girl singer and if Fred did all the ads. Fast-talking Fred assured him that they had the best girl singer around, while withholding the fact that this girl singer was none other than 11-year-old sister Rose… Not one to quit while ahead, Fred made a deal to purchase a new bass fiddle from Mr. Rice at $10 down and $10 a month that very same morning. Apparently it didn’t seem odd to Mr. Rice that at least one of the band members didn’t own his own instrument.”
The rest is history.
Theirs was the sound San Diego was bathed in during the 40’s and 50’s, the soundtrack to a gradually urbanizing series of beach towns between Tijuana and Camp Pendleton. Rose Maddox and her brothers rode the airways and toured the state, entertaining audiences and inspiring the next generation of musicians throughout the west.
Their story serves as a fine example of the classic California musician. Leaving home in search of a better life, geographically fluid, full of energy and clashing with the status quo, The Maddox Brothers and Rose represent a particular type commonly found in San Diego: the migrant musician. Whether it was the Dust Bowl, the military, or educational opportunities, San Diego has long been rife with people “from” somewhere else. This melting pot of traditions and backgrounds would lead to the creation of the bluegrass scene in the region as we know it today.
For more on the fascinating story of Rose Maddox, check out Lyle Duplessie’s three-part masterpiece, “Queen of Hillbilly Swing: Rose Maddox”, which served as the inspiration for this piece.
For more on this track, and many, MANY more, check out the Lou Curtiss Sound Library project, or follow Curtiss on Facebook.