Farewell to the King of Ragtime

Johnny Maddox, the ragtime pianist who helped reignite the genre in the early 1950’s while soaring to the top of the music industry, died early Tuesday, Nov. 27. He was 91.

The Gallatin native had spent the last year in local nursing homes as his health continued to decline, according to longtime friend and fellow historian Ken Thomson.

A uniquely authentic ragtime pianist, Maddox became the first artist signed by Randy Wood’s Dot Records in 1950. His first single, “Crazy Bone Rag” with “St. Louis Tickle” on the B-side of the record, sold 22,000 copies within five weeks helping to catapult the young artist into the music industry.

By 1954, Maddox had more records on jukeboxes across the country than any other performer at the time, which led him to be named the No. 1 jukebox artist by the Music Operators of America.

“He had his own style that was instantly recognizable,” Maddox’s protégé Adam Swanson said. “A lot of musicians today are missing that. Every record he ever made you could tell it was him.”

When Maddox’s “The Crazy Otto Medley” was released in 1955, the record stayed on top of the charts for 14 weeks and went on to become the first ragtime record to sell more than 1 million copies.

“Maddox, who had reintroduced the ragtime style at a point when it was virtually a dead idiom, found himself a household name, in-demand live attraction and frequent guest on the numerous network television variety shows of the day,” Johnny Whiteside wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 2010. “His role in establishing Wood’s Dot Records was also significant, enabling Wood to introduce another local Tennessee lad, Pat Boone, to the American public.”

During his career, Maddox recorded 50 albums with nine certified gold singles. He sold more than 11 million records in all and was one of the first performers to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.

"He never wanted fame"

Born on Aug. 4, 1927 in Gallatin, Maddox developed an interest in ragtime music at an early age from his great-aunt Zula Cothron, who was also an accomplished pianist. By the age of 5 he had performed his first recital and was working professionally with a local dance band by the time he was 12.

“My life was handed to me on a silver platter,” Maddox told the Gallatin News in 2015. “I didn’t even have to leave my hometown to find the career that I loved.”

Maddox spent most of his career performing in nightclubs across the United States.

He was described as the “white boy with colored fingers” by the “Father of the Blues” W. C. Handy during a trip to New York in 1952.

In addition to working with other popular music artists like Patsy Cline, Eddie Arnold and Lawrence Welk, Maddox was also featured on several television shows including “The Jack Paar Show,” Milton Berle’s “Texaco Star Theatre,” Patti Page’s “The Big Record” and “The Soupy Sales Show.”

After retiring from fulltime performing in 1992, Maddox still played shows during the summer at the Strater Hotel’s Diamond Belle Saloon in Durango, Colo.

It was there that he met Swanson who came to watch a show with his parents when he was 12 years old.

“He very much became a surrogate grandfather to me,” Swanson said. “He was very down to earth and fascinating as a human being outside of the music. He was interested in history, books, different subjects and not just music but all kinds of showbusiness.”

The two have remained in touch over the years, talking for about an hour every week. They also performed alongside each other at the hotel until Maddox fully retired in 2012. His last local performance also occurred that same year at the First Presbyterian Church in Gallatin.

“I’ve had a wonderful time”

Maddox was recognized by numerous organizations through the years for his accomplishments and lasting contributions to the music industry. Most recently he received the Outstanding Achievement Award in Ragtime from the Scott Joplin Ragtime Foundation in 2013 and the Distinguished Artist Award from the Tennessee Arts Commission in 2011.

Looking back on his career, Maddox reflected fondly on his “lucky” life in 2015 and added that he had a “wonderful time” with “good people.”

He also encouraged others to never stop improving.

“Don’t get to the place where you think you know it all,” he said. “If you have a room full of people and one person is looking at you, you do everything you can for that one person.

“If you can reach one person, you’re doing well.”

The funeral service for Johnny Maddox will be held at First Presbyterian Church on Main Street in Gallatin on Monday, Dec. 3 at 3 p.m. Visitation will be held the same day at the church beginning t 1 p.m. until the start of the service.

Marjorie Lloyd contributed to this report.

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