Virginia-born Otis Wilson Maphis was truly a one-of-a-kind individual. From his earliest days in the 1930s as a guitarist and piano player for The Railsplitters, to his experience with Blackie Skiles and The Lazy K Ranch Boys, his nomadic work in hillbilly troupes on barn dance and radio shows, his extended tenure on the West Coast as leader of the “Town Hall Party” band, and his renowned work as a sideman backing legendary artists in Hollywood recording studios, Joe had quite a run in the business.
Like fellow guitar great Hank Garland, Joe was influenced by Mother Maybelle Carter. He quickly developed an interest in nearly every stringed instrument imaginable. And what’s more, he found he could play them all and play the heck out of them. In fact, he was so good he became known as “The King Of The Strings.” Early on, Joe began to work out flat-picked versions of classic folk and country fiddle songs on the guitar, and this developed his trademark lightning-fast, ultra-clean style of picking – envied, emulated and copied by many players to this day.
In addition to his skills as a picker Joe also sang, wrote songs, and even did some country comedy. In 1951, he teamed up with a woman who would be his personal and professional partner for nearly 35 years – Maryland native singer/guitarist/bass player Rose Lee Schretrompf. Joe and Rose Lee recorded for a number of labels (including Lariat, Okeh, Columbia, Starday and CMH) and perform in one fashion or another nearly nonstop for many years. Yet somewhere in the midst of two busy careers, they found the time to marry and raise a family, which included a son Jody who is active in the music business (he’s a drummer and a guitarist) to this day.
It was also during the ’50s that Joe’s work with friend and fellow “Town Hall Party” picker Larry Collins produced some of the finest close-harmony guitar work in the history of country music. And talk about a sight on stage! Joe stood over six feet tall and usually wore a brightly colored Nudie suit. And Larry (a budding pre-teen at the time) had more energy than any five kids. And they both played cool-looking custom-made doubleneck Mosrite guitars. When it came to their guitar pickin’ on “Town Hall Party,” host Tex Ritter would frequently introduce them with, “On the doubleneck guitars, here’s the long and the short of it – Joe Maphis and Larry Collins.”
Maphis’ background and recording career has been discussed in VG‘s “SPOTLIGHT” column (February and November ’95), but we have never offered an in-depth profile. And who better to provide detailed information on Maphis and his career than his wife, Rose Lee Maphis.
Vintage Guitar: Let’s start by talking about your early days in the business. How did you and Joe meet?
Rose Lee Maphis: We met on the Old Dominion Barn Dance in Richmond, Virginia. That was in 1948.
When did you marry?
February of 1952.
What about the children?
Jody was born in 1954, Lorrie in ’56, and Dale in ’57.
That’s interesting . . Jody and I are about the same age. What was the first record label you and Joe recorded for?
RM: I think the very first one was Lariat.
Oh yeah! I have one Lariat 45 you guys did. It has “Square Dance Boogie” on one side and “Lonesome Train Boogie” on the other.
(Chuckling) Joe and I did a duet, too.
I know you guys did several sides for Okeh . . .
Yes. That was our first major label. I think the first record was “Dim Lights..” (“Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music)”)
Joe wrote that one, didn’t he?
Yes he did.
It’s become a country/honkytonk standard, hasn’t it?
Let’s talk a little bit about your Columbia Records period. When did you guys sign with Columbia?
Okeh was a subsidiary of Columbia. We signed with Columbia right after Okeh. It could have been 1953, certainly no later than ’54.
You and Joe recorded a fair number of records for Columbia. Do you have a particular favorite?
You worked with Don Law didn’t you?
Don was Columbia’s A&R man, and our producer.
How was he to work with?
Great! He let us do most anything we wanted. I don’t think he ever brought us any songs he wanted us to record. He depended on Joe to either write them or find them.
So you and Joe pretty much controlled your entire Columbia song output?
I would say so. Nowadays companies are much more picky on the songs.
There’s a lot of politics, isn’t there?
Yes. Definitely. But I think the songs may be better. The quality overall is better. Back then, Don would come to town and we were expected to do, I think, four songs. He never sent us any material to approve in advance. And he never, to my knowledge, asked to hear our songs in advance. It was just, “Do it!”
Did you record your Columbia material in Los Angeles?
All of it.
Did you use Radio Recorders, like Larry and Lorrie Collins did?
I gather that Don Law liked that studio . . .
What about “Town Hall Party” and “Western Ranch Party?”
Well, when we first moved to California in August of ’51, we worked on channel 7 (KECA-TV) in Los Angeles, for a man named Bert “Foreman” Phillips. He had over three hours a day of TV time. I think this was spread over three different shows. He was supposed to have had a contract for seven years. I’m not sure, but I think Joe and I only lasted for a few months. We worked with Wesley Tuttle, and later worked with him on “Town Hall Party.”
Wesley and his wife, Marilyn, right…
Yes. After the channel 7 job ended, Joe and I worked up at Fort Washington Beach (near Fresno) for Bill Albany. Bill Albany and Bill Wagnon (producer of “Town Hall Party” and “Western Ranch Party”) were partners. Joe also worked for Cliffie Stone, on his show, “Hometown Jamboree.” Joe worked on “Hometown Jamboree” for several months.
Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant were on that one, too.
Was Joe part of the band?
Well, he did specialty stuff. He wasn’t really part of the band. He was one of the features. Eventually, we ended up on “Town Hall Party.” Wes Tuttle would have a much better detailed recollection than I do as to exactly how it all came about, but I remember Johnny Bond, Wes and Marilyn Tuttle, Joe and I, Tex Ritter, Skeets Mc Donald, and some others were the first cast on the show.
That was quite a show. It featured a lot of rockabilly and rock and roll guest stars. And this was at a time when the Grand Ole Opry and shows back East weren’t doing anything like that. I guess they didn’t want to take a chance on that wild new music, did they (chuckling)?
(laughing) I’ll tell you, there was a real separation between the music on the West Coast, and in Nashville. On the West Coast, people danced and bands had drummers! Back in Nashville, they didn’t have dance halls. If you worked in a club, you weren’t considered a very nice person.
So there was a social stigma?
Yes. During the late ’30s and through the ’40s, every radio station had its own little combo of hillbillies. You would work an area a while then move to another radio station and work there awhile. Dance hall work just wasn’t something that existed on a big scale.
You and Joe migrated west that way, didn’t you?
Here’s how that happened. Joe and I were working at WRVA in Richmond, Virginia, on the “Old Dominion Barn Dance” (ca. 1951). At that time, I was also working in a duet with another girl. We were called The Saddle Sweethearts – Mary Klick and I. Nothing stays the same in this business and about this time, the “Barn Dance” was making some changes. Joe and I had decided to be a duet, professionally as well as personally. We decided to move on to Knoxville, where there was a pretty good-sized show going on. It featured Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, and others. Right at this time Johnny Bond came through Richmond. He was working the Foreman Phillips shows with Merle Travis. Joe was friends with Merle, they had worked together at WLW in Cincinnati and also at WLS in Chicago prior to 1948.
Foreman Phillips mentioned to Johnny and Merle that he was looking for someone who could play a lot of different instruments, to become a member of his show. Merle told Foreman, “I know just the guy you need, but you probably won’t be able to get him.” Foreman said, “Who is this guy?” Merle said, “Joe Maphis.” And Johnny Bond, who had just been through Richmond and knew of our situation, said, “He’s available.”
(laughing) I think that’s how God works things out for you. So Foreman called Joe on a Saturday. We had planned to leave the following Wednesday to work in Knoxville. Instead, we left for the West Coast. And that’s how we ended up in California. And what a different scene. We were used to playing in school auditoriums, theaters and parks in the summer time. There were parks all over Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.
Now you’re in L.A. and you’ve got that big dance hall circuit. That was a really big deal, wasn’t it?
Oh yes! They had bands going round-the-clock because of all the defense contracting/airplane industry work.
Did you and Joe play the Santa Monica Ballroom and the Palomino, places like that?
Oh, yes. The first club date we had was the Blackboard Cafe, in Bakersfield, California. Joe and I had never worked with drums before. It was hard, at first, to get used to. And it was loud! I think our drummer that night was Johnny Couviello, who used to work with Bob Wills.
All the people getting up and dancing while you were performing! That was strange to us. West of the Mississippi, people danced. East of the Mississippi, they watched and listened.
That’s how it was in the early ’50s when we got to California. We got used to it and learned to play with drums, and to play for dancing.
When you and Joe ended up on “Town Hall Party,” you obviously made the switch to drums pretty well.
Well, we had been at it for a couple of years by then. What they tried to do on that show was to please both the people who came to watch as well as the people who wanted to dance. The entire back portion of the building was for the dancing crowd.
It was a big hall, wasn’t it?
Yes it was! The “Town Hall Party” show was paced to please everyone. We mixed more up-tempo things for dancing and slower numbers for listening.
I know you sing and play guitar. Don’t you play some bass, too?
I could play a little bit of bass. I knew a few things, but I wouldn’t call myself a bass player. I could keep time, but not a lot beyond that.
Your son Jody turned out to be a pretty fine picker. Larry Collins tells me he is also a fine drummer. The last I heard, Jody was playing guitar for singer Johnny Rodriguez.
He is. He used to do a lot of drumming, real well.
Do you have any favorites of all the people you worked with on “Town Hall Party?”
I don’t know. You loved each one for their own reasons, really.
It was quite an amazing cast.
Oh, yes. At one time Spade Cooley was a part of the cast.
I didn’t know that.
Spade worked it quite regularly for a while. Tex Williams also worked it quite regularly, too.
You had a lot of famous people on it.
Yes. We also had Eddie Dean, Skeets McDonald, Merle Travis . . .
Tex Carman, too . . .
Tex Carman, that’s right. And of course Larry and Lorrie Collins.
After the ’50s came and went, you and Joe did a fair amount of touring, didn’t you?
Well, yes. Joe could have had a much bigger career doing sessions than he did. At that time, you were either available for recording sessions or you worked the road.
It was difficult to do both.
Joe tried to do both. Some people are content to just work in the studio. With Joe, he worked better with an audience.
Larry told me Joe didn’t like to rehearse at all.
No! Not at all (laughing).
He liked to wing it (laughing).
(laughing) That is so true. It was, “Turn the light on, and let’s go!” You know, Larry had such a talent! Joe would show him something backstage and Larry would go right out on stage and do it. People would say to Joe, “You taught Larry Collins, didn’t you?” And Joe would tell them, “No, l didn’t teach Larry. I showed him a few things.”
Larry was incredibly sharp, with a lot of talent. Although I think Joe might be responsible for getting Larry to use his little finger. At first, Joe couldn’t get him to use it. One night, fairly soon after the Collins kids became cast members (Larry joined “Town Hall Party” when he was about 10 and his sister Lorrie was 12), Joe went home with Larry and Lorrie after the show, and I think Joe might have pushed too hard trying to get Larry to use his little finger. I think he hurt Larry’s feelings – maybe even made him cry. Joe said something to Larry like, “You’re not doing what I’m telling you to. You’ve got to work that little finger. Quit playing like your Mama (laughs)!”
(laughing) Trying to shame him into using that pinky.
Anyhow, it did effect Larry. You’ll have to ask him about it sometime. But I think Joe might have hurt Larry’s feelings a bit in order to get him to use that little finger.
On the cover of the old Columbia album Town Hall Party, you and Joe are wearing some very cool matching pink suits.
Who made those?
Do you still have them?
They were somethin’ else to look at.
Joe and I never thought about holding on to stuff. We were never even big on pictures. Johnny Bond just took picture after picture.
I’ve got a copy of that record, and l love those pink suits! I’ve seen several different pictures of Joe in that suit. He must have been fond of it . . .
Uh huh. Now, though, I don’t know if you’d be caught wearing an outfit like that (laughing)!
Well, that stuff appears to be coming back.
Yes! Marty Stuart has been buying a lot of Rose Maddox and the Maddox Brothers outfits.
Yeah. Those are incredible outfits! And what a perfect way to slide into my next question; why don’t you bring us up to date on what you’re doing now? It is certainly related.
After being a country singer for a good number of years, I wasn’t really qualified to do much else. After Joe died (in June, 1986), I needed to get a job. Joe and I had worked the Opry before Opryland was opened and I had some contacts there. My daughter, Lorrie, suggested I call Bud Wendell,a nd he put me in contact with the personnel director at Opryland. The day I went in, they didn’t have much available. My son, Dale, was working at that time with the “Country Music USA” show (in the Opryland theme park). Dale was supposed to have a fitting for a costume that day and he asked me to go in with him and meet the ladies that do the sewing. I did. In conversation, I mentioned that I enjoyed sewing. The manager said, “Well, why don’t you come in and join us?”
So you did?
I did, but not right that day. Actually, the only job that was officially available that day through the personnel office was in merchandising – for “Hee Haw.” And that position required typing. I continued to look, and in early 1987, I decided to take the job sewing costumes until something else came along. I was hired as seasonal – like quite a few of the other ladies there.
Eventually, I had another possibility to work on a permanent basis in the Opryland Hotel, but by that time I realized how important my job in wardrobe was to me. I was happy where I was. God knew me better than I did. I just had to find out for myself. The gals I work with are great, and I’m really happy with that job. We sew for the live shows in the Opryland theme park.
Do you get involved with the Opry itself?
No. We don’t sew for them.
Not even if Porter Waggoner drops a rhinestone or two?
(laughing) Well, maybe…
This interview originally appeared in VG‘s May ’88 issue.