Wednesday, October 29, 2008

When Electricity Came FROM Arkansas (Revised)

When I started this blog almost two years ago, the first official band tribute I ever did was for one of my all-time favorite groups, Black Oak Arkansas.  I re-read it the other day and didn’t like the “drive-by” quality of that post and felt like I’d shortchanged the band just a skosh, so I decided to flesh it out a bit more and elaborate…

Whenever you had a band that Rolling Stone magazine’s music critics hated, chances are pretty good that I liked them (to wit, Kiss, Grand Funk Railroad, Styx, Rush, Z.Z. Top, et al), and Black Oak Arkansas is a prime example.  One such critic derisively summed up BOA’s career by saying, "Black Oak’s distinguishing characteristic is that the band has three guitarists who collectively don’t even add up to one good one."  Funny line, yes, but not quite true, and this is precisely why I rarely listen to music critics!  And thankfully, neither does the paying public, because BOA sold a boatload of records in the early ‘70s and they were a major concert attraction as well, especially around these parts.

Originally called the Knowbody Else, BOA formed in the mid-‘60s in and around the Jonesboro area of northeast Arkansas, just a ways northwest of Memphis.  The band went through more personnel changes throughout its tenure than Sprint does following a layoff, but the one constant was lead singer Jim "Dandy" Mangrum, and the band was subsequently named after his hometown of Black Oak.  While hardly the most photogenic guy in the world, Dandy still had big-time sex appeal for the women-folk out there with his long blonde hair, skin-tight white pants (which showed off his well-endowed-ness!) and bare chestclearly the blueprint one young David Lee Roth of Van Halen followed later in the ‘70s.  JD was/is a colorful dude, too, growling and howling his vocals and playing a mean washboard to boot.  The band also included journeyman drummer Tommy Aldridge from 1972-76 and Mangrum’s longtime friend and cohort Rickie Lee Reynolds on rhythm guitar.
After recording one record for legendary Memphis R&B label Stax Records, the band landed a better deal with Atco and released their self-titled album in 1971, which my older sister bought (sort of on a lark) and that’s how I was introduced to the band.  Black Oak Arkansas is one of my favorite albums ever, featuring “Hot And Nasty” (which still gets a spin on Classic Rock radio now and then), “Lord Have Mercy On My Soul”, “Uncle Lijiah”, “When Electricity Came To Arkansas” and a hilarious cover version of Marty Robbins’ 1956 classic “Singin’ the Blues”.  Another humorous remake, LaVern Baker’s “Jim Dandy”, even cracked the Top 40 in early 1974, and throughout the early ‘70s, BOA was one of the hottest live acts in the country, and I wish I could have seen them in concert during their heyday, which is highlighted on their 30th anniversary DVD on Rhino.  Although the production value is a bit lacking on the DVD (there’s a graphic on it saying they played at London’s "Royal Alberts Hall"!), the vintage footage of the band in concert is excellent.

The band’s success enabled them to purchase a large residential compound in north central Arkansas near the town of Oakland in the Ozark Mountains where the band lived and recreated for a few years but by the time they fulfilled their contract on Atco in 1975, record sales started drying up.  Their three albums for MCA in ‘75 and ‘76 stiffed out, and then they panicked and dropped “Arkansas” from their name in 1977 in a failed attempt to de-Southernize the band.  Mangrum gave the band a complete overhaul and brought in a bunch of “real musicians” to impress the critics with, while he himself actually tried to sing instead of growling.  Didn’t work.  They wound up looking and sounding like an edgy Pablo Cruise or something.  The two just plain Black Oak albums they made for Capricorn Records (home of the Allman Bros.) were just plain flops, although 1977’s Race With The Devil had its moments, and by 1979, the band was history altogether.

Mangrum and Reynolds resurrected Black Oak Arkansas in the ‘90s and continue to tour today with an ever-changing lineup of younger musicians, and sadly, they don’t do the original band justice.  It’s also unfortunate that most people only know of “Hot And Nasty” and “Jim Dandy”, because there was so much more to this band, and it’s a shame they are so vastly overlooked.  Okay, even I will readily admit that musicianship-wise Black Oak Arkansas wasn’t a great band—good, yet hardly great—but being technically proficient isn’t always that important to me.  Emerson Lake & Palmer were technically very good musicians—but live in concert, ELP was about as exhilarating as watching “World Series of Poker”.  BOA’s music was just plain fun, and sometimes being fun and entertaining far outweighs being virtuosos, and I’ve found it’s damn near impossible to be in a bad mood while listening to a BOA record.  Thus, while the aging hippies over at Rolling Stone still spend all their waking hours dissecting those Pink Floyd and King Crimson records note-for-note, I’ll continue to boogie to Jim and the boys.  Jim Dandy to the rescue, indeed!

My all-time Black Oak Arkansas Top 21:
21) “I Could Love You” (1971)  One of BOA’s edgier tunes, featuring guitarist Harvey “Burley” Jett playing with his wah-wah (pedal).
20) “Rock ‘N’ Roll” (1976)  Not the famed Led Zep tune, but a BOA original, and one of the better songs from their uninspired three-album stint on MCA Records.  A little studio trickery was used here, as they overdubbed concert crowd noise that grows louder as the song goes along and builds to a climactic crescendo.
19) “Taxman” (1975)  Given George Harrison’s somewhat passive nature, he never really fit the part of a mean ol’ Taxman very well, but JD Mangrum sure did in this Dandy (sorry!) remake of GH’s Beatle classic.
18) “Up” (1973)  Never recorded in the studio and only available on Black Oak’s first live release, Raunch ‘N’ Roll, it features one of the bitchinest drum solos I’ve ever heard, courtesy of Tommy Aldridge.
17) “Son Of A Gun” (1974)  Love the attitude on this one from Street Party, which is about not worrying about other people’s expectations of you.
16) “Hey Y’all” (1974)  Also from Street Party, this one became a perennial concert opener during their later years.  The intro sounds a bit like Kiss’ “Detroit Rock City”.
15) “Memories At The Window” (1971)  Sounding almost Guess Who-like in places, this one from the first album also features some nifty steel guitar from Stanley “Goober Grin” Knight.
14) “Fever In My Mind” (1972)  Easily the best song off BOA’s rather weak second album Keep The Faith.  It sounds even better on 1975’s Live Mutha!.
13) “Singin’ The Blues” (1971)  BOA excelled at doing cover versions that improved upon their originals, and this remake of the Marty Robbins classic is a real stitch.
12) “Dixie” (1974)  A fun little instrumental re-working of Granny Clampett’s favorite song sandwiched between an รก capella intro and outro.
11) “Uncle Lijiah” (1971)  Opening track off the first album, ol’ Lijiah seemed like he was a relative of the Clampetts.  He’s still kickin’ at 105, too…
10) “Hot And Nasty” (1971)  As a kid and prepubescent listening to this song, I didn’t fully comprehend what all the “Ah…ah…oooh!” stuff Jim was doing at the end was about.  I got the full Monty years later when I saw Jim simulating the ol’ bump ‘n’ grind on stage on the DVD concert footage.
9) “Red Hot Lovin’” (1973)  With lines like “Flaming redheads have notorious fame to make a man do crazy things…” and "I've got my rail in the oven...", this was no doubt inspired by redheaded singer Ruby Starr, whose band Grey Ghost often toured in tandem with BOA.  Sadly, Ruby died of brain cancer in 1995.
8) “Jim Dandy” (1973)  BOA’s only sniff of the Top 40, climbing all the way to #25.  It rips LaVern Baker’s original to shreds.
7) “Lord Have Mercy On My Soul” (1971)  Strange irony that a mean old agnostic like me would embrace a song with pseudo-religious undertones, but I’ve always loved this little ditty about the "Halls of Karma".  The riff sounds kinda like the Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman (In A Black Dress)” too.
6) “Let Life Be Good To You” (1975)  Ain’t Life Grand was easily BOA’s most underrated album, and on this track, Jim sings about living life to its fullest and doing stuff you enjoy.  I’m not much of an outdoorsy-type, but the way Jim sang about “campin’ out, cookin’ trout, under a sky of blue…” almost made me want to grab a fishin’ pole!
5) “Race With The Devil” (1977)  Respectable remake of a song by Adrian Gurvitz, this was easily the highlight of the just plain Black Oak period, but it was also the beginning of the end for BO(A).  Heavy metal chick band Girlschool did an even meaner remake of RWTD in 1981.
4) “Hot Rod” (1973)  Another fresh track introduced for the first time on the live Raunch ‘n’ Roll record.  Just to clarify, it ain’t necessarily about speedy motor vehicles!
3) “Cryin' Shame” (1975)  This song has a great riff and it’s very applicable for our current economic situation: “Any way you see it, the name’s the same/Can somebody tell me now, who’s to blame?...Livin’ like this is a cryin’ shame…”
2) “Rebel” (1975)  Another excellent song from Ain’t Life Grand, all about living life on the lam.  Should’ve been a staple on Classic Rock radio, but sadly, it wasn’t.
1) “When Electricity Came To Arkansas” (1971)  This one had all the fundamentalist Christian pinheads (you can’t spell fundamentalist without “mental”, btw) in a tizzy because they thought it contained Satanic messages via the process of backward-masking.  Funny how quickly they forgot all about “Lord Have Mercy On My Soul” played forwards, eh?  Anyway, “Electricity” is mostly an instrumental (with a riff that sounds a bit like the “Odd Couple” theme), augmented with some communal chanting led by Jim Dandy.  Utterly silly, but loads of fun, too.


dr sardonicus said...

Sadly, BOA never could make consistent albums. Their first is still their best.

There once was a hilarious interview with Jim Dandy up on the nets where he talked about smoking dope with Bill Clinton. Unfortunately, I can't find that one anymore. This interview is pretty good; he also tells his Clinton story here, but in a more straightforward fashion.

David Lee Roth never could have existed without Jim Dandy Mangrum.

Brian Holland said...

I generally agree with your diagnosis on BOA's career, good doctor--consistency was their downfall. That first album was killer, the next two were pretty weak, the first live albums was good, the next two studio records were about half-decent, and I thought 'Ain't Life Grand' was a very good good, yet overlooked album. Then it was pretty much all downhill after that.

Thanks for the interview link. Interesting that Elvis was a fan of the band. Nice going, Mr. King!