Recalling ‘The King of Strings’

Published 10:38 pm Wednesday, March 5, 2014

By Frank Roberts

Did you know “The King of the Strings” was born in Suffolk? It was way back in 1921. You have to be an enthusiast of old-time, pure country music to recognize the name Joe Maphis.

He was hot stuff in the ‘50s and ‘60s, one of those musicians who is highly respected by his peers.

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Name a stringed instrument, and chances are excellent that he played it and played it very well, thank you. He was best known for his dazzling guitar virtuosity.

Maphis gained fame while living in Bakersfield, Calif., a West Coast version of Nashville, where he appeared on television’s Town Hall Party and, later, on Jimmy Dean’s show.

He also picked and grinned on the Hollywood Barn Dance, Hometown Jamboree, WLS National Barn Dance and, in Richmond, the Old Dominion Barn Dance.

In addition to all that pickin’ and grinnin’, he made a name for himself as a songwriter. His most popular piece was “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music).” Been there, done that during my half-century of reviewing country artists.

Maphis performed with such well-known folks as Ricky Nelson, Wanda Jackson and one of my personal favorites, Rose Maddox. One critic noted that he influenced Chet Atkins and Merle Travis. His guitar takes up some valuable space in Nashville’s Country Music Hall Of Fame.

Every musician has a hero, someone he tries to emulate. For Maphis it was the Carter family matriarch — Mother Maybelle who, it should be said, influenced so many country artists. Matter-of-fact, at his request he is buried in a Hendersonville, Tenn. cemetery “right next door.”

Mrs. Maphis — Rosa — is still with us, at 91. Son, Jory, is also in the country music biz.

Joe Maphis was a friend of Grandpa Jones, whom I met when he played an outdoor concert in Smithfield eons ago. Funny guy, but crusty. The sponsor gave him — what else? — a Smithfield ham. Grandpa groused that it should have been bigger. I met his wife, Ramona, in Arkansas, and she was a very sweet, grandmotherly lady.

While I’m dropping obscure names, I met Ben Alexander while doing an interview show on KWWL-TV in Waterloo, Iowa. He was Jack Webb’s first “Dragnet” partner. Harry Morgan stepped in later.

One thing I remember about Mr. Alexander was his ruddy complexion. Also, on that particular program, I had the pleasure of talking to Fred Waring, who divided the interview banter between his lovely music and his well-known invention, the Waring blender.

Speaking of cooking, my wife is such a bad cook, at our house we pray after we eat. Here is part two: My wife is such a bad cook, our dog begs for Alka Seltzer.

When asked what he would want on his tombstone, Willie Nelson had a neat answer: “He meant well.”

Here’s a little item for the forthcoming baseball season. Pete Gray played 61 games in the outfield for the St. Louis Browns in 1945, despite having lost his right arm in a childhood farm accident.

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at froberts73@embarqmail.com.