On 10th June at the Esse Jazz Café in Moscow, we celebrated the life and music of one of the forgotten heroes of rockabilly music. Our tribute concert to her was a recognition of her crucial role as one of the forerunners and inspirations for the birth of rockabilly music, particularly for female artists. I booked the Great Pretenders to perform for us at the concert on 10th June. I have written about them before in this column, the last time being at the end of last year. They are a brilliant band, playing an excellent authentic brand of rockabilly and rock’n’roll. They put on, as ever, a superb show and were a fitting choice to celebrate the woman who was certainly one of the wild women of the 1950s’ music scene and who had an influence on the history of rockabilly. Some of the photos you can see were taken at the concert.
Rose Maddox was a very successful country music star, who performed from the 1930s as a child star, right up to the 1990s. Her most successful years were in the 1950s and early 1960s, particularly the period when she was recording on the Capitol Record label. Her great contribution to rock’n’roll was in her influence on what was to become rockabilly. Her country music style of singing and performing made a huge impression and lasting legacy, which significantly influenced the birth and growth of the rockabilly movement.
Rose could hardly have been born into a poorer family. In Depression Era America in the 1930s, her family, comprising her Mum, Dad and 4 brothers, hitch-hiked from their home in Alabama all the way to California. It was her mother’s decision to make the move, as a way out of their poverty. At that time Rose, the youngest child in the family, was seven years old. Her story is another example of the many rock’n’roll and rockabilly stars of the future who were born into dirt poor families and really tasted first hand what poverty meant. Some other examples that spring to mind include Elvis, Charlie Feathers and Carl Perkins. Contrast this with the middle class self-styled “trendies” from the sixties era. For example, mega stars such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones never knew what it was like to go hungry, despite their attempts to portray themselves as anti-establishment. But I digress.
Rose’s family’s journey to California was an epic story in itself. Strangers along the route gave them lifts, food, etc. When they finally arrived in California, the Salvation Army initially gave them food and accommodation. Eventually Rose’s Dad found work and the next big step was the creation of the family band, “The Maddox Brothers and Rose”. Singing basically country music, the child performers achieved some local success and did lots of performances in saloons, clubs, etc. They also had regular slots on the local KTRB music radio station.
When America entered World War Two at the end of 1941 her four brothers joined up for the army, so the band was in abeyance for the duration of the war. It was during the War that Rose, at the age of sixteen, got married. The marriage didn’t last that long, but Rose did have a child by it, her son Donnie. After the war, the “Maddox Brothers and Rose” re-started their musical career and by the end of the 1940s achieved national success. It was at this time that they moved to Hollywood, another sign that they had “made it.” In 1957, as a result probably of exhaustion after 20 years of extensive touring and performing around the country, the act split up and Rose went solo. She continued to be very successful.
By all accounts, her stage performances were something to behold. The music journalist Jonny Whiteside saw her a few times in the 1950s and describes her impact this way; “Rose, standing centre stage as ever, knew through and through – from the pointed toes of her custom-made boots to the snow-white Stetson tilted back upon her head – that every single audience member had come for one reason: to hear her sing, to watch her keeping time to every song with a kinetic shaking, to marvel at the sheer , natural power with which she filled the entire dance hall.”
In my record collection, I have a box set of all Rose Maddox’s songs recorded on the Capitol label from 1959 to 1965. My favourite tracks are those where you can clearly hear how much she influenced rockabilly music. Numbers like “My Little Baby”, “Move it on Over”, “Sally Let your Bangs Hang Down” and “Why Don’t you Haul Off and Love Me” demonstrate this superbly.
In the 1950s she married again, to Jimmy Brogdon. But the marriage was not a success. There were persistent stories of Brogdon beating her up, as well as rumours of Rose’s infidelity. By the early 1960s the marriage was about to collapse and Rose by then was not in good shape generally, using drugs (especially benzedrine) as a form of release and comfort.
In 1981 she suffered two serious heart attacks. In the same year, another tragedy occurred – her son Donnie died of a stroke. Mercifully Rose recovered from the heart attacks, but it took a long time. But eventually she started performing again, albeit at a much slower pace than before. But she was able to overcome her problems and recorded right up until 1996. She died of kidney failure, in 1999.
Someone once described her as “the sound of Rockabilly to come.” In her prime, she dressed very suggestively for that time and her style and energy was definitely “on the wild side” for that period. The rockabilly promoter Billy Poore said “she had three of the best examples of primitive rockabilly,” describing her songs “’Hey Little Dreamboat’, ‘Wild Wild Young Men’ and ‘My Little Baby’ as the three great examples of a country female artist who was able to sing early rockabilly with ease.” The writer Andy McNutt said she was “one of the wildest pre-rockers” and “her style was cut right from the rockabilly cloth.” Rose described herself this way, “Back then, women were expected to get married and have children. That’s ALL. Well, I just wasn’t made that way.” In the late 1980s, she put it like this, “I was always a different kind of singer. Nowadays, all the girl singers sound alike. I sounded like nobody else, and I guess that’s why I was so distinctive.”
Thankyou to Rose Maddox, for her great contribution to Rockabilly. She was a Wild Rose indeed !