Cult Heroes No. 8: Joe Maphis
I daren’t suggest he was doing in the late 1950s what Tony Iommi did a generation and a decade later, but you listen to his 1957 album Fire On The Strings, and then tell me that he wasn’t the prototype for so much that would come later, albeit without detuning or the benefit of studio wizardry.
Joe Maphis was simply astonishing – and it’s about time he was given some credit for being truly King Of The Strings, as he was affectionately known. Why that epithet? Because he had a reputation for being able to pick up any stringed instrument and play it straight off – a natural gift. But his first love was the guitar, and it was here that he forged a reputation among his peers.
Born Otis B. Maphis in Suffolk, Virginia, he was brought up in Cumberland, Maryland. Showing a real aptitude for music, the young Maphis not only played the fiddle but also the piano. And his abilities on a variety of stringed driven instruments – banjo, mandolin, guitar bass fiddle – earned him radio shows in Wheeling, West Virginia, Chicago and Cincinnati.
After entertaining the troops during the Second World War, Maphis became a regular on the popular radio show The Old Dominion Barn Dance, where he not only performed but would host (under the name ‘Cousin’ Joe Maphis) and even did comedy routines (as ‘Crazy’ Joe Maphis). Old friend Merle Travis would recall of those days:
“I’ll never forget how his song Arkansas Traveler came through that car radio. Here was the flawless, lightning-like execution of a master. After I’d got rid of my goose bumps and come back to earth, I remarked, ‘Gosh, I’d sure like to meet that old man!’ ‘.”
Maphis married singer Rose Lee, and in 1951 the couple went to California – on the advice of the aforementioned Travis – where Joe was very much in demand as a session musician. He was also a frontline performer in his own right, especially with his wife. Originally signed to the small Lariat label, the duo switched to Okeh, a subsidiary of Columbia, for whom they recorded the 1953 hit Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music); this would subsequently be covered by Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers.
By this time, Maphis had a style of his own, which was rooted in country and influenced by fiddle playing; he was to take this approach into rock ‘n’ roll when he began to get calls for session work in this area. In the process he developed a style that combined clean precision with lightning speed. In this respect he was to be a major inspiration for players such as Eddie Cochran.
In 1955, Rose and Joe were moved directly onto the Columbia label. And it was during this period that he came up with what was to be his signature tune: Fire On The Strings. On this, not only did he use banjo and mandolin, but also the double neck guitar, which would become one of his trademarks. This was specially built by Semie Moseley, who started the Mosrite company in 1952. Having seen Maphis on TV, he was determined to meet the man and to make a guitar for him. The double neck Mosrite had the top neck an octave higher, and allowed the man to become more of a virtuoso – in the process totally changing country music. The original model is now in the Country Music Hall Of Fame in Nashville.
In 1957, Maphis released perhaps his most iconic album, Fire On The Strings. It was the perfect showcase for his many talents, allowing him to slam through such songs as Guitar Rock And Roll, Bully Of The Town and Flying Fingers, with hands a seeming blur, while never allowing pure speed and technique to overtake his core sense of feel. And just how diverse he could be came through on the beautiful Lorrie Ann.
A year later, came the incredible Swingin’ Strings, featuring Maphis and young protégé Larry Collins. Listening to the pair duelling on Hurricane is an object lesson in the best way to attack such exchanges. Here were two giants blazing a trail, attempting to outdo one another, yet the one encouraging the other to go a step or two further. This is twin guitar mayhem, long before anyone had heard of southern rock, Wishbone Ash or Judas Priest.
Over the next three decades, Maphis continued to be in demand, both as a recording artist and also as a live performer. His consistency and unique appreciation made him a cult figure. Maphis died from cancer on June 27, 1986, leaving behind a body of work that was admired by everyone from Johnny Cash to Chet Atkins. Such was the reverence for the man that he is buried at a cemetery in Hendersonville, Tennessee, next to Maybelle Carter, matriarch of the hugely important country performers the Carter Family, and Maphis’ own hero. This was organised by Johnny Cash and his wife, June Carter (daughter of Maybelle), out of respect for the man.
Joe Maphis has remained in the shadows as far as rock is concerned. It’s about time he came out into the limelight. What he did influenced the pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll, and therefore those who would help to fashion rock and metal. He is a guitar great, as anyone who’s prepared to listen to him will readily agree.
Right, that’s enough waffle. The man himself will prove the point
Here he is Pickin’ And Singin’
With Larry Collins on Ramrod
Again with Collins on Hurricane
Finally, the classic Fire On The String
Find out more about him at www.myspace.com/joemaphis
Tags: Carter Family, Chet Atkins, Cult Heroes, Eddie Cochran, Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, Joe Maphis, Johnny Cash, Judas Priest, June Carter, Larry Collins, Maybelle Carter, Rose Lee, Semie Moseley, Tony Iommi, Wishbone Ash], Yngwie Malmsteen