Cowboy crooner: Smilin’ Red Maxedon, part 1

It’ll be down-to-earth music the boys will want, and there’ll be longing in the hearts of everyone for the simple, restful melodies of our land. – Smilin’ Red Maxedon [1]

Smilin' Red Maxedon, WJR radio

Smilin’ Red Maxedon, early 1940s. Source: Mountain Broadcast and Prairie Recorder [1]

During the 1940s, one of the best-known voices of Detroit radio was the mellow baritone of John “Smilin’ Red” Maxedon. He sang cowboy songs with reassuring ease, not unlike a western Bing Crosby. For several years, WJR radio’s clear channel 50,000-watt signal sent Maxedon’s “restful melodies” across North America every day.

Born August 31, 1910, and originally from Illinois, Maxedon spent some of his youth in Washington State. [2] Surrounded by a family that included six brothers and four sisters who played guitar, fiddle, and banjo, Maxedon performed at community functions for many years, before leaving home during his teens.

He first broadcast over KFLV radio Rockford, Illinois, northwest of Chicago. From there, he breezed into the Windy City – first at WCFL radio, and then at clear channel WLS, home of the “National Barn Dance” Saturday night jamboree. Maxedon specialized in western songs, inspired by early singing cowboy stars who appeared on the “National Barn Dance” such as Gene Autry, Eddie Dean, Rube Tronson, and Max Terhune. A left-handed musician, Maxedon taught himself to play left- or right-handed guitar and often switched mid-performance for his audience.

Mountain Pete’s Mountaineers

The WXYZ radio Mountaineers, Dec. 1937, LIFE magazine

Mountain Pete (left) and the WXYZ Mountaineers, 1937. Source: LIFE [3]

During the 1930s Maxedon joined a group called Mountain Pete and his Mountaineers at WHO radio Des Moines, Iowa. Maxedon performed as vocalist and led a vocal trio within the band, which was named after Pete Angel, a fiddle player from France. After a move to KSTP radio St. Paul, Minnesota, the Mountaineers settled at WXYZ radio Detroit in 1937. LIFE magazine featured a photo of the Mountaineers and brief description of the band in its December 27 edition. [3]

By 1940 the Mountaineers performed daily over WJBK radio Detroit, and every night at restaurants and showcases. Maxedon’s brother Roy, ten years his junior, visited him for a couple of weeks around that time. [4]

“Me and John worked at some tavern in some suburb there. … South of the Border was the name of the tavern. We played there … must have been every night. … We just went around, table to table, singin’. We didn’t have a band or anything. We’d do requests,” he said. [5]

Maxedon, his wife, and their two young boys lived in an apartment downtown. On Thanksgiving Day, 1941, the red headed baritone joined WJR staff with a fifteen-minute solo program that aired mornings at quarter-past five. (Mountain Pete and his Mountaineers remained at WJBK.) By fall 1944, Maxedon also sang with long-time WJR favorites Tim Doolittle and his Pine Center Gang over the radio, three times a week. [6] Perhaps the first folk music singer in Detroit radio, Doolittle had performed on WJR since 1924, when the station’s call letters were WCX. [7]

Listen to: Smilin’ Red Maxedon – I Fell In Love (Arcadia AO-600)

Goodwill Frolic
The WJR Goodwill-Billies, 1945

The WJR Goodwill-Billies, ca. 1945. From left: Jerry Byrd, Casey Clark, Ernie Lee, Bronson “Barefoot Brownie” Reynolds, “Melba” Maxedon, and Smilin’ Red (superimposed image). Source: Craig Maki, courtesy Clark family

In October 1944, WJR “the Goodwill Station” introduced “The Goodwill-Billies,” another early morning program. Along with several musicians recently arrived from the South, Maxedon performed Monday through Saturday from five to six o’clock. The group included vocalist Ernie Lee, Bronson “Barefoot Brownie” Reynolds on bass, steel guitarist Jerry Byrd, and fiddler Casey Clark. Lee, Reynolds and Byrd came directly from the Renfro Valley show in Kentucky. Clark moved from WIBC radio Indianapolis, Indiana. WIBC vocal duo the Blue Mountain Girls also joined the show. [8]

In 1945, the Goodwill-Billies started a Saturday night program called the “Goodwill Frolic,” adding “Pee Wee” Linden on accordion. While working with the Goodwill-Billies, Maxedon created a female alter ego, Melba, who appeared in comedy routines with Reynolds’ female alter ego, Barefoot Bonnie.

The Goodwill-Billies proved a popular draw to radio listeners and for personal appearances at fairs and showcases across Michigan. When WJR ended the show in September 1946, Ernie Lee left Detroit for Cincinnati’s WLW radio and its “Midwestern Hayride” Saturday night barn dance. Reynolds and Byrd joined Red Foley’s Cumberland Valley Boys at the “Grand Ole Opry” at WSM radio Nashville, and Clark retired back home to Kentucky. (Clark returned to Michigan the following year.) Maxedon, who began making records for the Arcadia company of Detroit in 1946, returned to WJBK radio.

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Next week in part two: Red Maxedon’s recordings, and we answer the question, “What ever happened to Smilin’ Red?”

 

Notes

  1. “John ‘Smilin’ Red’ Maxedon” Mountain Broadcast and Prairie Recorder (September 1944. New Series, No. 1) 23. “The boys” refers to active U.S. soldiers.
  2. Ibid.
  3. “Detroit’s WXYZ Wins Showmanship Award” LIFE (December 27, 1937. Vol. 3, No. 26) 50. Original photo cutline read: The WXYZ Mountaineers are heard from coast to coast. No hillbillies, they are city-bred musicians. Director Pete Angel (left) is a former concert violinist, was born in France. His mates hail from Canada, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Russia.
  4. Mountain Broadcast and Prairie Recorder (September 1940. Vol. 2, No. 1) 11. Maxedon’s early career was documented in a letter he wrote to the magazine.
  5. Roy “Smiley” Maxedon interviewed by Keith Cady in 2001.

    “American Folk Tunes” Billboard (Sept. 20, 1947. Vol. 59, No. 37) 121. Mountain Pete’s brother Al played bass. World War II broke up the band, but according to the September 20, 1947, edition of Billboard, “Mountain Pete and His Country Cousins returned to WJBK, Detroit, September 15, and are heard five times weekly …” Band included guitarist, clarinet/saxophone player, accordionist, pianist and vocalist.

  6. See note 1.
  7. “American Folk Tunes” Billboard (September 2, 1944. Vol. 56, No. 36) 62. After his original group broke up in 1942 (due to the draft), Tim Doolittle’s Pine Center Gang in 1944 included Al Sager, bass, organ (for hymns) and fifteen other instruments; Paul Henneberger and Joe Pullin, fiddles; and Pete Baltrusz, accordion.
  8. A more complete story of the WJR Goodwill-Billies appears in the forthcoming book “Detroit Country Music: Mountaineers, Cowboys, and Rockabillies.”

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