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Arts and Culture

Growing up in ragtime: musician Johnny Maddox

Andrew Nichols

Famous ragtime pianist Johnny Maddox visited Columbia this week as the guest of honor at the Blind Boone Ragtime Festival.  In the height of his career in the 1950s, Maddox performed with names like Patsy Cline and released the first all-piano record to sell over 1 million copies.    With millions of albums sold and more than 60 years working in the music industry, many ragtime fans would call Maddox a legend.   

But Maddox still thinks of himself as a boy from Gallatin, Tenn., who loves ragtime music.  He is part of the sixth generation of his family to be born and raised in Gallatin, and his love for music grew there from an early age. 

“I started taking music in 1932,” Maddox said.  “I had 19 years of violin, trombone, pipe, organ and piano.  I sound like a cat on a back fence now with the violin.”

Maddox’s great aunt, Zula, was a ragtime musician and inspired his love for ragtime.  But since ragtime originated from African-American communities, Johnny turned to African Americans to better learn the genre.

“I knew a lot of Black old-time piano players, and I would go to their homes and I’d try to copy some of the stuff they did,” Maddox said.  “But finally, I came to a place I had to do my own arrangements.”

So, Maddox began recording in May, 1950, and began touring soon thereafter.  He remembers times when he traveled to 28 states and four Canadian provinces in the span of 18 weeks.  One of those times, he was playing a state fair and his friend got the idea to put a hydraulic lift on the back of a pickup truck to raise him in the air while he played piano.  He says one night the lift’s motor caught on fire, but Maddox loved performing too much to let that stop him. 

“I never missed a note,” Maddox said.  “I just kept playing away.  I thought, ‘If this dag-blamed thing goes down, I’ll just go down with it.’”

Maddox continued to perform until 2012, making appearances at Durango, Colo.’s Strater Hotel.  He says his newfound retirement is treating him well, and he spends most of his time resting, reading, and occasionally playing some of his favorite ragtime hits on the piano.

“I’m so happy to be out of the rat race, I call it,” Maddox said.  “I mean, I made a lot of people happy in my time, but it was just time for me to quit.”

Now, Maddox has returned to his beloved Gallatin, where his love for ragtime began.

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