Here's the story of
Joe & Rose Lee
Rose Lee Schetrompf was born on December 29, 1922 in Baltimore, Maryland and raised on a farm not far from Hagerstown, Virginia. Her Country music career started at age 16 when she played guitar and sang with an all girl group called 'The Saddle Sweethearts'. As Don Pierce (head of Starday Records) put it : 'Her clear, sweet voice has that 'ever lovin' twang of Country sincerity and she picks a mean rhythm guitar.'
Around 1951, the couple headed for California (following advice from Merle Travis) and it wasn't too long before Joe was in great demand on recording sessions. In fact, his considerable skills made him one of the busiest session guitarists on the West Coast (more on that later). When television came along, Joe & Rose Lee became fixtures on the Town Hall Party Show in Los Angeles. Their first recordings were made for the small Lariat label, but they were soon signed up by Okeh Records, a branch of Columbia which seemed to specialize in Rhythm'n'Blues but had a strong Country roster as well. They cut six singles for the label, including their biggest seller to date, 'Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music)' (1953, the same year they married). Their duets on these honky tonk songs were quite pleasant and Joe's playing was always the ice on the cake.In fact, Joe is as pure a Country musician as you can find ; his guitar lines were patterned after those played on fiddles and even when, later on, he attended Rock'n'Roll sessions, the Country essence of his playing always showed up. He developed a clean, precise, though sharp, picking style which, combined with his astonishing dexterity and speed, produced one of the most thrilling, memorable and influential guitar sounds ever. Cliff Gallup, Eddie Cochran, Gary Lambert, Larry Collins, Danny Gatton, are part of the legion of pickers who owe him a lot.
Joe & Rose Lee were moved to the parent company - Columbia
- and cut more fine sides until Joe came up with 'Fire On The Strings', which
became his signature tune. Apart from playing also banjo and mandolin on the
track, Joe used his double-neck Mosrite guitar to great effect. And thereby
hangs a well-known but remarkable tale ... After watching Joe on TV, a young
boy by the name of Semie Moseley dreamed about making a guitar especially for
him. With the help of a preacher friend of his, he was able to meet Joe and
agreed to build a double-neck guitar with the top neck an octave higher. That
beautiful Mosrite guitar was presented to Joe on stage ; there was even an 'M'
at the top of the peghead which stood for Maphis. Joe's incredible technique
allowed him to jump easily from one neck to the other, creating dazzling effects
which changed Country music forever.
In 1957, Joe's first LP was released ; aptly titled 'Fire On The Strings', it contained such monsters as 'Guitar Rock And Roll', 'Bully Of The Town', 'Flying Fingers' and the hauntingly beautiful, 'Lorrie Ann'. Joe's playing is so tasteful that one never grows tired of listening to this stuff. In January 1958, Columbia put out an astonishing EP called 'Swingin' Strings' ; it featured Joe and his protégé, young Larry Collins (of The Collins Kids, of course), chasing each other in a spectacular battle of the double necks !! One track in particular got all listeners flabbergasted : 'Hurricane'. 1959 saw the release of the Harmony album, 'Hi-Fi Holiday For Banjo', but also that of a single which showed some kind of departure from Joe's usual sound : 'Short Recess' featured Plas Johnson playing tenor sax (bit like in some of Duane Eddy's super recordings for Jamie) and the flip, 'Moonshot', had some Bo Diddley-influenced percussion.
Joe and Rose Lee, along with Merle Travis, Johnny Bond, Skeets Mc Donald, The Collins Kids and many more, had become a fixture on the 'Town Hall Party' TV shows in the 50's. They had solo spots of course and Joe was the in-house lead guitarist. Those Country cats were very biased towards Rock'n'Roll - they mostly didn't like it and it showed even if most of them were able to cut some classic Rockabilly tracks. But Joe was always willing to do his best and his best work on 'Town Hall Party' was when he played behind Bob Luman or Wanda Jackson for instance. All these shows are now available on DVD thanks to the Bear Family label in Germany and I would urge you to check'em out, especially 'Bob Luman At Town Hall Party' (BVD 20004), featuring outstanding performances from Bob and Joe.
In 1960, Joe
parted company with Columbia - although Rose Lee cut her own delightful album
for the label later in the year (with Joe backing her up). There was a lone
but great sounding '45 on Republic : Joe's version of the old Merl Lindsay number,
'Water Baby Boogie'. A stereo issue of this track on a Sundazed CD in 1990 (CD
HC 12001) allowed us to hear Joe's various guitar overdubs and it's a joy to
hear those cascading runs up and down the necks !! Now, who plays piano in there
?? Around that time, Joe recorded that famous LP for the Mc Gregor label, located
at 729 South Western Avenue in Los Angeles. Almost comprised of traditional
country & folk tunes only, Joe takes them to a higher level - especially
since he does all guitar, banjo, mandolin and fiddle parts. His double neck
Mosrite, well to the fore on the outstanding front cover, is used in several
tracks - 'Square Dance Rock', 'Crazy Pickin' (which goes a bit over the top)
or 'Green River Rag' where Joe does some real good Travis pickin'. There are
times when you can clearly hear the tape splicing : my question is, do stereo
tapes exist ? The album would no doubt benefit from clean stereo separation.
From 1961 to 1963, Joe & Rose Lee were under contract with Capitol. The
two albums they cut there were, again, fantastic !! First, there was that Bluegrass
LP with The Blue Ridge Mountain Boys ('Lonesome Train' contained a fine dobro
solo and I particularly liked Joe & Rose Lee's rendition of 'Little Rosewood
Then, Joe teamed up with his longtime friend, Merle Travis, to cut an instrumental set - 'Country Music's Two Guitar Greats' - which was pure magic !! Merle's subtle picking combined with Joe's blazing artistry produced gems like 'West Coast Blues' or 'Blast Off' (the latter being really 'Flying Fingers' #2).
I should also mention another Capitol outing : 1963's album, 'The Prisoner's Dream', recorded in prison by a real prisoner, Charles Lee Guy III. Guy sings songs by Johnny Cash ('Folsom Prison Blues') and Spade Cooley ('Cold Gray Bars') in a pleasant Country-Folk style, while accompanying himself on acoustic guitar ; the lead acoustic guitar is played by none other than Joe Maphis.
next step would be at Starday Records,
although Joe, Rose Lee and their three children (Jody, Lorrie
and Dale) did not leave their San Fernando Valley home to settle close to Nashville,
Tennessee - where the action was, then - until 1968. Joe worked many Californian
clubs during the '60s ; guitarist Walt Rogers recalls playing with him at the
101 Club in Oceanside and at Bill Testers's 1440 Club in San Jose.
Frankly, Joe's Starday albums are wonderful and every bit as good as the previous ones. The first for the new label, 'Mr & Mrs Country Music' (circa 1964), contained great stuff like 'Time To Pray' and the rockabilly-flavored 'Sweet, Sweet Lips' (dig Joe's guitar intro and Pete Drake's steel solo !) as well as remakes of 'Please Mr Mailman' and 'Del Rio'. The classic cover photo was taken at the farm of the late Grandpa Jones, in Goodlettsville, Tennessee.
The other three (not counting various artists comps) were instrumental masterpieces (I know, I'm out of superlatives now !!) - especially SLP 316 which includes some of my all-time favorites like 'Little Bit Of Travis', 'Coffee Break', 'Banjo Boogie Shuffle', 'Double Neck Boogie' and the delicate 'Sweet Rosie', plus one of his many collaborations with another great talent, the late Pete Drake, in the form of the non-stop 'Hot Rod Guitar'. 'Golden Gospel Guitar' (SLP 322) is a marvelous collection of sacred tunes and on SLP 373 ('Country Guitar Goes To The Jimmy Dean Show'), Joe plays acoustic lead guitar, sometimes using his electric Mosrite in counterpoint like in 'Dixie Guitar' or his lovely rendition of Arlie Duff's 'Y'All Come'. It should be noted that the jacket of that latter album - nicely designed, like the other Starday LPs from the '60s - included a now scarce 34-page guitar method.
As the sixties drew to a close,
Joe & Rose Lee remained active. They cut two albums and a
few singles for the Mosrite label, on which Joe's discovery, Barbara Mandrel,
had debuted : there was always the same tasty mixture of vocals ('Second Fiddle
To A Guitar', 'Ole Jobro', 'There Goes My Everything') and instros like 'Durango',
'Alabama Jubilee', 'Spanish Dobro' and a version of 'Buckaroo' featuring Joe
on fuzz guitar. Several sides were produced by veteran Bill Woods, including
'Tunin' Up For The Blues'. Joe then appeared on the Chart imprint (his single,
'Guitar Happy', is tremendous : wonder who plays that dazzling steel on it!)
before moving on to CMH in the late seventies, where he cut another nice series
of albums (sometimes with Merle Travis, Grandpa Jones ond others). The 'Grass
'n' Jazz' LP (see discography) was an acoustic Bluegrass/Country Jazz effort
, where Joe was supported by a stellar cast of musicians : Johnny Gimble, Benny
Martin, Bobby Thompson, Harold Bradley, Josh Graves, Hargus 'Pig' Robbins &
Buddy Harmon. All those records are wonderful examples of Country music at its
best ; Joe's playing is always inventive while his and Rose Lee's vocals stay
well rooted in traditional styles - the whole thing sounding varied, modern,
though conjuring up what I would call 'prairie' images and feelings.
Of course, Joe had also made his mark with TV themes and the duo remained very popular until the end ... The end occurred on June 27, 1986, when Joe died of lung cancer. Rose Lee and their children (Jody and Dale cut at least one album each with their father) keep his memory alive, as do all those fans and collectors who were instantly knocked out by his incredible musicianship. His skills and versatility led to his ubiquity in the West Coast recording studios during the '50s, a most important period of transition ; therefore, it can be safely said that Joe Maphis strongly contributed to shape modern Country music.
© Paul Vidal * Privas, France * 1998/2008