When given the task of writing about a legend of ragtime, I was instantly struck by how inadequate a few words describing such a life and career would be. Nevertheless, Johnny Maddox richly deserves everything that can be said about him and this is my small offering.
I realize there are many ways to divide the various eras of ragtime, but I have my own preference. There was the era of the original composers I roughly date from the 1890s to the 1930s. From the 1940s to the 1960s ragtime fell out of popularity but was kept alive and well by the performers and composers in what I usually refer to as the preservation era. Next came the great revival era of the 1970s when ragtime burst back to popularity and finally, the modern era from the 1980s that has brought syncopation to brilliant new heights of performance and composition.
It is during the preservation era where Johnny Maddox made his most valuable contributions. There were but a few artists performing and composing during the nearly lost decades from 1940 to 1970. If the Irish monks saved Western civilization in the Middle Ages as Thomas Cahill speculates, then Johnny Maddox and the other few did much the same for ragtime music during his amazing career ultimately spanning nearly eight decades. Without these talented performers keeping the world aware of ragtime, the revival and modern eras of the style would probably not have happened, at least as they did.
Johnny Maddox began, at the age of twelve, performing professionally in Gallatin, Tennessee in 1939 with a local dance band, The Rhythmasters. He had been performing publicly since he was five years old and had learned his love of ragtime from a great-aunt. Johnny received a classical music education from local piano teachers.
However, it was an early job in Randy’s Record Shop in Gallatin that lead to his recording career. His boss, Randy Wood founded Dot Records and Johnny became one of the label’s bestselling artists. In turn, Johnny helped make Dot Records a top recording company of the 1950s. In 1954 he was recognized as the Number One Jukebox Artist in the country. He sold over a million copies of the Dot Records release of San Antonio Rose he performed alone in 1958. The song was written by Bob Wills. Maddox next signed with MCA and he became a popular touring artist alongside many of the most famous performers of the 1950s and 1960s, a list far too long to include here.
In the 1970’s Maddox lived and performed briefly in Austria where he had decided to retire. It wasn’t long however, before he was back in the states touring and collecting. In fact, Johnny made several attempts at retirement before finally ending his career in 2012. He had attempted retirement in the 1970s but then became the long-time pianist at Il Porto Ristorante in Alexandria, VA. Retirement again in 1992, ended in 1996 when he became the resident ragtime pianist at the Diamond Belle Saloon in the Strater Hotel in Durango CO until 2012
Johnny was sometimes referred to as Crazy Otto and that could be confusing. As late as the1970s I thought Maddox and Crazy Otto were two separate artists and in fact they were. However, the original Crazy Otto was Fritz Schulz-Reichel, a German jazz pianist with a unique ragtime style. When Maddox recorded Schultz-Reichel’s Crazy Otto Medley in 1955 for Dot Records and it became a #2 best seller (and the first million selling all-piano recording), Johnny often took on the older German’s stage name. So, I was right and wrong. In 2000, Johnny started Crazy Otto Music Company, further confusing the name.
Johnny was a famous musicologist, music historian and collector of music, eventually accumulating over 100,000 pieces of antique sheet music, piano rolls, records and photographs. In the process of performing and collecting, Johnny met many of the original ragtime composers and performers from the original ragtime and Vaudeville eras. W.C. Handy once said of Johnny in 1952, “(he’s) a white boy with colored hands.” It was known that Johnny knew several thousand pieces of music by heart.
In his career Johnny Maddox recorded over 40 albums and 90 singles selling in all over 11 million records. He received 9 gold singles awards for his million sellers. At the height of his career he appeared on every major TV variety show and was also a popular radio guest. He was in the first group of celebrities to be honored with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame and is the only ragtime performer. He has been presented by many ragtime groups with lifetime achievement awards.
As a boy of 12, Adam Swanson, musicologist, music historian, collector of music and a brilliant performer, met Johnny Maddox and they remained close friends the rest of Johnny’s life. Adam wrote that Johnny “taught him a love of many kinds of music as long as melody was the focus of the style.” He went on the write, “Johnny’s personal stories about working with so many of the pioneer ragtime composers, vaudevillians, and old-time movie stars in their later years (i.e., the 1950s and ’60s) fascinated me. Someday I intend to put it all in a book about Johnny,” Adam added.
That will be the best tribute Johnny could receive. Swanson now occupies Johnny’s old piano bench at the Diamond Belle Saloon and Johnny gave Adam many treasures from his collection. Adam was the last performer to visit his old mentor before the ragtime legend died near his home in Gallatin, Tennessee on November 27 at the Gallatin Rehabilitation Center. He was 91.
Just prior to his death, Andrew Green, director of the Peacherine Ragtime Orchestra announced that he had acquired many of Johnny’s orchestrations and is planning a 2019 CD recording with Adam Swanson featuring Johnny’s music titled “Jazzin’ The Blues Away.”
Condolences go to Johnny’s family, his many friends,and to his faithful protégée, Adam Swanson. It is sad to report the passing of someone who was so vital to the music we appreciate so much. However, as the legend he is, we will always have the gift of his unique ragtime talent and that is joyful to know. After all, joy is what ragtime is all about.