Thursday, May 14, 2009
Joe Maphis: Fiery Strings and Strange Embraces
Joe Maphis, early chicken-picker extraordinaire, might never have heard of Rimbaud, or heard him proclaim that "unknown inventions demand new forms," but he definitely plied his craft with a pretty strange, previously unknown invention, the double-neck Mosrite Joe Maphis model guitar, pictured above.
With that double-necked beast, custom built by Semie Moseley, founder of the Mosrite guitar company, and his own “Firey Fingers,” Maphis established himself as the West Coast’s top dog guitar virtuoso, band leader, and session man throughout much of the 1950s & early 60s. For years his Town Hall Band backed pretty much every act to appear on LA area hillbilly music show Town Hall Party, and Maphis can be heard playing on records by Wanda Jackson, Ricky Nelson, Merle Travis, Terry Fell, Skeets McDonald, Larry Collins, and more.
During his early musical development, Maphis didn’t even play guitar. Growing up in Cumberland, MD, in the 1920s & 30s, he started out on piano and fiddle, and his subsequent guitar style, noted for its meticulous precision, fluidity, and speed, is said to have developed from transposing fiddle licks to what would later become his signature instrument. However it developed, Maphis soon became a crack multi-instrumentalist, and began to appear on radio & television shows like Boone County Jamboree (from Cincinatti), the Wheeling Jamboree, and the Old Dominion Barn Dance (from Richmond, VA). In Richmond he met his wife-to-be, Rose Lee, and by 1951, they moved to LA, eventually settling in at the Town Hall Dance Party and doing session work on the side.
Maphis plays on Wanda Jackson's debut Capitol LP Rockin’ with Wanda!, most of which was also released as singles. A pretty complete Ace reissue (compiled from her 1st two LPs) can be found here. Below is a clip of Joe & Wanda doing up “Cool Love” on Tex Ritter’s Western Dance Party, 1958.
He cut a long list of sides with Johnny Bond, of which I own but a few, namely “Sick Sober & Sorry,” and Bond’s version of Charlie Ryan’s “Hot Rod Lincoln,” a tune more tailor-made for Maphis’s brand of chicken-pickin’ you’d be hard-pressed to find. Too bad Maphis’ playing is so subdued there. But then, Bond’s monologue is the song’s main focus, after all. Despite all the restraint, you can hear Maphis doing some pretty crazy tricks on the volume knobs throughout. In a seeming gesture of mutual admiration, Ryan would later cut his own version of the Maphis standard "Hot Rod Guitar" for the 4-Star label.
Fellow Compton hillbilly Terry Fell⎯that’s right, infamous Compton was once LA’s Okie Town⎯employed Maphis on the Christmas classic, “(We Wanna See) Santa do the Mambo.” Maphis’ fiddle can also be heard on Fell’s “Get Aboard My Wagon” and “He’s In Love With You”⎯good honky tonk weepers, those last two, but nowhere near Fell’s wildest stuff like “Caaveman” and “Don’t Drop It.”
Maphis played on a slew of Collins Kids recordings, such as their version of Ernest Tubb’s “Walking the Floor Over You,” plus “Hop, Skip, and Jump,” “Missouri Waltz,” and others. Little Larry Collins, with his own custom double neck guitar and slick technique, was most definitely a Joe Maphis protegé. Together they cut the songs “Hurricane,” “Bye Bye,” “Moonshot,” and “Flying Fingers,”, which originally appeared on the Columbia EP Swinging Strings, and they regularly performed flashy expositions of guitar wizardry on Town Hall Party. Watch the clip below and see how Maphis’ full-growed height versus Collins’ pre-adolescent sprout-hood, and the positions imposed by those crazy guitars, sometimes placed them in a rather strange embrace.
But what about those “new forms” demanded by those “unknown inventions”? About the closest Maphis came to finding them was on his solo Fire on the Strings LP, on Columbia, from 1957. While songs like “Flying Fingers” and “Guitar Rock and Roll,” do reach new heights of stratospheric boogie, all those “chops” sometimes threaten to drain any semblance of rock'n'roll from record. Fortunately for Maphis, tho, most of his recordings avoid falling into guitar wanking, thanks in part to his hillbilly roots, and probably also to the restraints imposed on him as a side-man. Let’s end with one of Joe Maphis’ best instrumentals, from his post-Columbia days, the “Water Baby Boogie” single, recorded in Ecco-Fonic Sound for the Republic label.