Let's have a little piano ragtime in the background and while the left hand marches and the right hand dances, let us think about glory and tenison and fatigue; let us praise men who have tasted success and looked for another taste; let us feel the charm of old music and the even greater charm of a quite life right here in Old Town Alexandria, won painfully after a life of frenzy. Let us talk about pianist Johnny Maddox.
Pianist Johnny Maddox is not one of ragtime's grand old men: at 51, he can't match numbers with such veterans as Eubie Blake. But he is one of the art's grand middle-aged men, and he won a secure place in its history almost half a lifetime ago.
Today, after selling more than 11 million records, giving a pop record company its start, barnstorming for years as a ragtime pianist and undergoing a traumatic divorce and fitful retirement, Maddox is back at the keyboard, deliberately keeping a low profile as the resident pianist at a restaurant in Alexandria. He is still making records (his total to date is 87 singles and 43 albums, nine of which went gold), but now, he says "When I do a record, we only press 1,000 copies and that's it -- they're for specialists, not for the general public."
Maddox grabbed his chunk of ragtime history in 1955, when he was a seasoned professional musician, working days in a record store in his home town, Gallatin, Tenn., and playing nights (as he had since he was 12) in a dance band. Ragtime music was a hobby -- he had learned it from black people with whom he grew up, from his great-aunt, who played ragtime at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904, and from old-timers whom he began interviewing while they were still around to talk to.
The record store where Maddox worked was owned by one Randy Wood, who did a large mail-order business and had founded a small label of his own, Dot Records. Maddox had made the company's first record -- "a couple of ragtime tunes," he recalls. "I was amazed, five weeks later, when Randy told me, "We have already sold 22,000 copies.'"
That was only a prelude. Along came a soldier returning from Germany with a record he had bought there, a disc jockey began playing it on local radio, and when people began coming into the record shop for copies, there were none. Dot Records and Johnny Maddox were on the spot, ready to supply the demand -- with a piano deliberately untuned to get the right jangly sound. "Dot made a lot of money doing cover records [records that 'cover' the same material already recorded by other artists], Maddox recalls now. "From his experience in the record shop, Randy remembered what sold well by mail."
What happened next is recorded by Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis in "They All Played Ragtime," the basic history of the art: "Ragtime had not sold a million of anything since Scott Joplin's 'Maple Leaf Rag' of 1899 passed that mark in sheet music sales. Then in 1955 along came pianist Johnny Maddox with his 'Crazy Otto' rag medley record. It is a true parallel a half-century apart: 'Maple Leaf' established a music publishing house; 'Crazy Otto' established a prosperous recording company."
When the dust had settled, the record had sold more than 2 million copies and Maddox had enriched not only Dot Records and himself but the first Ragtime Revival, which had begun in the 1940s and was until then moving along modestly (the second Ragtime Revival began with the release of "The Sting" five years ago, a soundtrack of music by Scott Joplin, and we are still in the middle of it). Until then, Maddox had been known only as a juke-box artist, but after the "Crazy Otto" record he took to the road and, like such performers as Max Morath and Joe "Fingers" Carr, began to make a good living playing ragtime piano.
"God, how I fought it," Maddox recalls. "I get homesick the minute I leave the city limits of my home town. All of a sudden I was taking my hobby out to the world, and I felt like a missionary in a lot of places. Even today, in a place like North Dakota, you still have to get up and talk a lot -- let them know what your're doing. There are a lot of people out there who haven't heard anything but rock and top-40."
At II Porto Ristorante in Alexandria, where he is the pianist in residence except for three months of vacation each year, Maddox still likes to talk about the music. He is an expert on American popular music of all kinds from the late 1800s to the early 1930s and if the audience gives him any encouragement he can talk at length on the various composers, their lives, work and styles. Besides being a performer, he is a scholar in the field, with a collection of more than 100,000 pieces of original sheet music ("You used to get it for a dime or a quarter, but you can't anymore"), more than 2,000 old Edison cylinder records, piano rolls and houseful of books and old magazines.
"I have spent 40 years doing research on this music," he says, "and my main source has been the people who played the music when it was new. There were still a lot of them around when I began about 1950."
He recalls meeting W. C. Handy in 1950 in New York, learning from him the correct style for playing "St. Louis Blues" on the piano and being introduced to friends by Handy as "a white boy with colored fingers." He was born much too late to know Scott Joplin (who died, much too young, in 1917) but he knew several of Joplin's friends and colleagues, and from conversations with them he has worked out his own theory of the very slow tempo markings found on almost all of Joplin's sheet music.
"Joplin was a great composer," says Maddox, "but his friends told me that he was not a very good pianist. The only music he ever played was his own, and he never played it the same way twice. I think those tempo markings indicate the speed that he found comfortable." Maddox takes Joplin's music much faster than a pianist like Joshua Rifkin, who follows the score as though he were playing a European classic. "He takes saloon music and makes salon music out of it," says Maddox, "but Gunther Schuller does it right -- those are authentic arrangements he uses, and his own arrangements are in the right style."
Although his own collection of sheet music dates back as far as the Revolutionary period, Maddox believes ragtime sheet music should be approached with a certain freedom and skepticism: "A lot of the people who played and composed it didn't read music, and a lot of the publishers would change it -- simplifty it so that the dime-store customers could play it. You can't always trust piano rolls, either -- sometimes they were 'improved.' There are at least a couple of piano rolls in circulation with my name on them, and I had nothing to do with them."
In a sense, there are two people coexisting in Johnny Maddox. One is Crazy Otto, ragtime pianist who made it big a quarter-century ago, and who now plays honky-tonk piano in a striped shirt and bow tie on an old upright with its front panel removed ("people like to see the hammers moving") and lacquer carefully applied to the felt on the hammers for a tinny, old-time sound. The other is Johnny Maddox, scholarly pianist who makes his recordings on a concert grand for a deliberately limited audience, suggests that a lot of ragtime was originally composed on concert grands rather than uprights and collects documentation on popular music.
They seem to get on well enough together, but sometimes they get in one another's way. Maddox has been asked to lecture at various universities, including the University of Maryland, for example, but he says, "I don't think I'm ready -- I've been playing in saloons so long."
On the other hand, after being Crazy Otto from 1955 to 1969, Maddox found that "I was going a little crazy" and retired. He moved out of the country (to Salzburg, Mozart's home town, of all places in the world) and deliberately cut off all contacts with booking agents and record companies. "I didn't want any more," he says. "I was mad at the world and had gone through a terrible divorce. I didn't like the tax bracket I was in, or the pressure of performing every night and not taking any breaks."
In Salzburg, he bought his own home, didn't do any work for two years, and hardly had any contact with his neighbors, whose language he didn't speak.
One of his neighbors had lived in England and spoke English, and he recalls, "She would go shopping with me. 'We don't pay full price,' she would say. "That's for Americans.'"
After a couple of years, Crazy Otto began to assert himself again; Maddox found that he missed the people he used to play for "and my conscience was bothering me because I thought I had something to offer." He began traveling again and hated it ("not the playing -- that was fine -- but the traveling,") and decided that he would "try to space it better."
Maddox's arrangement with Il Porto represents his solution to the tension between Crazy Otto and Johnny Maddox -- indicating that perhaps Otto isn't so crazy, after all. Out in Hollywood, he recalls, he has his name set in the concrete of the sidewalk of Hollywood Boulevard, right next to that of Will Rogers. "When I first saw it," he says, "I thought this is one time my name won't be mistaken for Johnny Mathis -- otherwise, I don't think it means much."
What does means much, he says cryptically, is music. "Music is one thing you don't have to lie about."