LONG BEFORE Marvin Hamlisch's score for "The Sting" thrust ragtime music into the commercial mainstream, pianist Johnny Maddox was quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) recording the works of turn-of- the-century composers. Forty-five albums later, he's still at it. His latest effort, "The Memphis Blues," is a full-blooded tribute to W.C. Handy and contains Handy's most familiar pieces as well as several 19th-century folk blues that Handy helped to preserve and popularize.

Maddox's interpretations are by no means conservatory perfect. His arrangements frequently mix blues and ragtime inflections and odd tempo shifts. But if his playing is a bit unorthodox, he more than compensates for it by charging his performances with plenty of spirit and drive.

A two-fisted pianist, he achieves an orchestral effect on several numbers by juxtaposing rollicking bass lines with infectious treble melodies. When he digs into familiar blues such as "The Hesitating Blues" or "Loveless Love" (better known as "Careless Love"), he does so lovingly, as if savoring the chord progression. But then perhaps that's to be expected. As Louis Armstrong once told Handy, "You get to blowing those beautiful changes right, and you have to play good." JOHNNY MADDOX -- "The Memphis Blues" (Blythewood 101); appearing Tuesdays through Saturdays, from 8:30, at Il Porto, 121 King Street, Alexandria.