Jim Dandy to the rescue: an interview with a Southern rock icon
The musical overlords at Rolling Stone and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame want you to believe that the Allman Brothers Band, ZZ Top, and Lynyrd Skynyrd are the only Southern rock groups worth listening to and while your local classic rock station will extend that list to include the likes of Molly Hatchet, the Marshall Tucker Band, Blackfoot, and the Outlaws, every facet of the rock establishment continues to ignore one of the greatest bands of the era. In the 1970s, Black Oak Arkansas racked up several gold and platinum albums, had a legitimate hit single, and became well-known for their energetic live performances, playing for over 200,000 at 1974's legendary California Jam. They counted the likes of Elvis Presley and John Lennon among their fans and Lennon even described the band as being "ahead of their time," a claim that gained legitimacy a decade later when guys like David Lee Roth and Axl Rose would rise to prominence by directly copying the stage persona of Black Oak Arkansas vocalist Jim "Dandy" Mangrum.
Neither Mangrum or his band have ever really gotten their due from the music establishment. While their peers and imitators are resting comfortably on their laurels in Cleveland, Black Oak Arkansas can be found playing to the faithful at clubs and biker rallies, spreading the message of rock and roll to all who will listen. And now, 40 years after the release of their debut album, it seems that Jim Dandy and Black Oak Arkansas are finally re-emerging and are ready to claim what rightfully belongs to them. They are currently working on their first album since 1999's The Wild Bunch, Jim Dandy is penning an autobiography and several younger artists are helping to put the band back in the spotlight.
The band was formed in 1963 by two outcasts from the small town of, fittingly enough, Black Oak, Arkansas.
"I was kicked out of every public school in the state of Arkansas," Jim Dandy says, "Rickie [Lee Reynolds] was kicked out with me because we were the only two longhairs.... This was early, like '62 or '63, before the Beatles came out with their little Caesar cut. My daddy told me, 'I don't care how long it is, just keep it clean' and by the time I went back to school all these people I thought liked me OK hated me. I was like the white monkey at monkey island and they all wanted to kill me because I made them feel weird. They finally kicked us out. They said I was an agitator. I wouldn't have quit for nothin' and Rickie was an honor student, but fuck 'em if they can't take a joke."
"I was having five fights a week," he continues, "because I was a longhair and people thought they could whoop me. But no one ever knocked me out. Finally one day I ask Rickie, 'Don't you know three chords?' He said, 'I know four,' and I said, 'We're gonna be a band.'"
Originally known as The Knowbody Else, they signed to Stax Records in 1969 and released one album before relocating to L.A., signing with Atlantic, and changing the name of the band to reflect their roots.
"We were always the wild card," Dandy says, "Atlantic originally signed us to Atco 'cause they wanted to get us out of the way. They had the Allman Brothers, the Eagles, and the Rolling Stones.... When we did our first album with 'Hot and Nasty,' 'Uncle Lijah,' and 'Lord Have Mercy on My Soul' we were trying to be versatile and they had already started segregating the music, you know. Nashville had hits and New York, L.A., Detroit. They were separating it and doing the same thing that churches do to Christianity: dividing if for their own pocketbook. And we were versatile; we had a little bluegrass, a little country, a little rhythm and blues. They called it confused, what we called versatile... But we weren't worried about where it got played, we were just worried about covering all of the areas of our liking and from our heritage."
That self-titled debut album eventually earned the band a gold record and more gold and platinum records were to follow, most notably 1973's High on the Hog. But the band's biggest hit was actually recorded after a suggestion from a very special fan.
"I was in the studio one day," Dandy explains, "and George Klein called and told me that Elvis was gonna call me in two hours. I was asking George what I did wrong. I knew he kept up with everything happening in the Memphis area. Was I in in trouble? What the fuck did I do, you know? George said, 'No, he's impatient. There's something you have to do and he's tired of waitin' on you. He's gonna call you and he's gonna tell you.' And I said, 'Oh shit, what's this all about?"
"He called me in exactly two hours," he continues, "and he wanted me to do this song by Lavern Baker called 'Jim Dandy (To the Rescue)' from 1957 when I was nine years old and right around the time my daddy started callin' me Jim Dandy. And I said, 'You don't say no to the King of Rock n' Roll.' And what I said was so corny! Why did I say that for? So he told me that 'Rock 'n roll was created by a disc jockey for his own pocketbook, I play rhythm and blues, gospel, and country, and there ain't but one King and I ain't him.' But the coolest thing he said at the end of the phone call was, 'You know, Jim Dandy, it comes through us, not from us. We just got the best seat in the house.'"
By the late '70s, though, the band's popularity was waning and after 1978's I'd Rather Be Sailing, it would be eight years before a new Black Oak Arkansas record hit the stores. Dandy says that part of the reason the band wasn't as successful as they should have been is former manager Butch Stone.
"I don't care if you even mention his name because I've already given him more attention than he deserves, but it's not an uncommon story. Everybody got ripped off back then and I've sort of outlived most of my adversaries. All said and done, they stole $4 million from me, which still ain't as much as they stole from John Fogerty. But we had a control freak manager who moved us up into the woods of the Ozarks because he didn't want us playin' roadshows with anybody 'cause he was rippin' us off....We were a household name with Don Kirshner and Midnight Special back when they were just showing rock n' roll on TV an hour or so a week on Saturday night. Then when MTV and VH1 came along we weren't on there because Stone owned all of the stuff."
While Black Oak Arkansas was absent from MTV, a multitude of frontmen rose to prominence by directly copying elements of Jim Dandy's style. However, he says he has no animosity towards them.
"Sincerest form of flattery," he states simply, "They didn't steal nothin' from me. It wasn't mine to steal anyhow. We just put it on the right channel to be able to receive it."
Dandy says that the new album, the self-produced Memphis Mean Tymes, is currently being mixed and will be released in a few months. It will include the band's signature mix of rock 'n roll, country, and R&B, alongside a Western swing number and two songs by Tommy Bolin, the legendary James Gang and Deep Purple guitarist who was a friend of the band.
"This is closure for my fans," he says, "We have the most loyal fan base in music other than the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead and they wanna know what happened. I just hope that [Butch Stone] is still alive when it comes out 'cause I want him to see the reckoning and be there when everything's set right."
In addition to the new record, several younger artists are also embracing Black Oak Arkansas and bringing the band and their music back into the spotlight. This year alone, Joecephus & the George Jonestown Massacre have already released a cover of "Fever in My Mind" featuring Dandy, Billy Bob Thornton will be covering "The Hills of Arkansas" on his new album, and Shooter Jennings will be recording an unreleased Black Oak Arkansas song and bringing Jim along for the ride.
"He's got a song called '15 Million Light Years Away,' that we've never really recorded. But me, and Rickie Reynolds and Buddy Church wrote it several years ago. I was proud that he picked that one. I sent him several. He wants me to come in and sing harmony on the song and I'll be glad to come and do it....You know, Shooter's got a heart of gold and it's as big as Dallas. He came from pioneers and he deserves better attention than what he gets.... You didn't put no rules on Waylon and you don't put no rules on Shooter. It's generations of people who were the radicals and nonconformists of our time....I met Waylon at a hotel once and he told me, 'I love Black Oak Arkansas. They don't know what to think about you and you should keep it that way.'"
"The young bands," he adds, "are gonna be an important part of the change along with the guidance and spirituality of the old ones. It's coming to pass and I'm looking forward to it."
Despite his love for many of the newer bands, he's also quite critical of today's music business in general.
"They don't have what we used to have," he says, "The bonding between the fans and the artist isn't complete. It should be easier to have the computers for the campaign, but instead it's more confusing. They've opened Pandora's box. Now the record stores are all going out of business and the next thing to go is radio and TV stations. To me, it's like a comedy of errors. These days everybody can own everything and nobody can own nothin'."
"It's about the people," he explains, "It ain't about us. That's funny to hear from a guy who has a song with his name in it, but you gotta make the people participate. You've gotta give 'em a show as well as a sound. You don't gotta be jumpin' around all the time, just eye contact and talkin' to 'em, and keepin' 'em involved. The people don't come to see us. Bands talk about head-cuttin' and blowin' each other off the stage and that's total bullshit. They're lost and they don't know where the center of gravity is 'cause it's about the people and all you gotta worry about is goin' out there and playin' the best you can for the people. It ain't about blowin' each other off the stage. It ain't about us at all. It's about the people. There's certain bands out there now that nobody moves on stage. You could put cardboard cutouts up there and play the CD and get just as much out of it....In the old days, you had Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Otis Redding, James Brown, Tina Turner. You had people out there that honored the sweat and blood of their crowd and gave 'em a show. Now they're too good to do that."
But he doesn't stop with music. He says that the only reason he learned to sing initially was to talk to people in between song and he is unafraid to share his opinion on political issues. In fact, he says that some people even wanted him to run for office once.
"They tried to set me up to be a politician, but I said, 'Look y'all. I'm an anti-politician. If I get what I want you'll all be out of a job'.... The world ain't the way it oughta be. It's the way it is. And it's the way it is because it works for them the way it is. I mean, look at us, we're two centuries old and in that length of time we've went from having peace officers to law enforcement officers to police officers. Look it up in the dictionary. Police is an ugly word. I don't need them to serve and protect me, because they protect themselves and serve me a warrant...These other countries that have been around 14 centuries know better than try to get people for auto insurance and stuff like that. Hell, there ain't enough jails to put everybody in. We do it because we can. Why do they got the gas prices like they do? It ain't because of no bullshit over there in Egypt or anywhere else. It's because they can. They got the oil and they're gonna do it and it'll be four dollars by April....It's not right that all of these banks have all these empty houses with so many people homeless. They're erasing the middle class and it's just gonna be the haves and have-nots....Farmers farming 2,000 acres are sharecroppers to the banks. The banks and the insurance companies run the politicians and they run the medicine. Socialized medicine like they have in Canada is not socialism, it's just that everyone should have the same inventions and the same creations that are out there regardless of how much money they have....The people running our armies- and I love our soldiers- but the people running our soldiers have our country fighting wars over territory and doing genocide on third world countries and end up dividing the powers. And it ain't right. I'm not a patriot. I'm not a flag-waver. I don't believe in flag-waving, because the poor people on both sides end up with barely enough to get by. So let the greedy bastards fight it out themselves."
Dandy says that there have been consequences for his outspokenness over the years, not the least of which was a meeting in Washington D.C. in the early '80s.
"I got interrogated for six hours without a glass of water in Washington D.C.," he says, "They brought me in under the guise of doin' an interview for Radio Free Europe, you know, for our armed forces. But they were interrogating me and the whole reason it happened is that in Chicago I had an interview on the air and I told this disc jockey at the end of it, 'Can I ask you a question?' He'd been asking me questions for about 45 minutes and he said, 'Sure.' I said, 'Do you think the old money-- not the new money like Wal-Mart-- but do you think the old money's gonna worry about winnin' an election? Don't you think they own both sides and let us vote to feel involved like we're a participant and keep the worker bees appeased?'"
"It's like four months after John Lennon was shot," he continues, "and I gotta say that he's the only one in my line of work that earned a good death. We all die, but to earn a good death he got involved with things he didn't have to and stood up for things that were wrong and he got killed for it, but he had the honor of being the only one with the nerve to say what everyone else was afraid to say... Bob Dylan got run off the road on a motorcycle and they tried to kill him. After that he did stuff like 'Watching the River Flow' and 'Lay Lady Lay,' but then 'Hurricane' Carter got in that trouble and he went back to being his old self, gettin' involved. But he's one paranoid son of a bitch. I love him and he means a lot to me, but he understands that we're easy to get rid of. All of us... Rickie said, from the time we were 15 or 16, 'We're gonna get in trouble someday 'cause you're always saying what they're afraid to say.' I said, 'Don't it feel good, though, Rickie?' People today are afraid to say their opinions inside their own house. There ain't nothin' free and ain't nobody free. Home of the brave, that's for sure. You gotta be brave just to come outta the house....But I was there for six hours and the questions they were asking me were, 'Are you an icon smasher or a taboo breaker? Are you here to incite the insurrection or agitate the revolution?' After the interrogation they said 'You're not a particularly young man, but you better stay a song and dance man and quit talkin' between songs.' I said, 'Why don't you just kill me? It's my purpose and I'm gonna do what I'm supposed to do.'"
Ultimately, though, that purpose leads back to music.
"Rock 'n roll is freedom of speech and individuality," he says, "Rock 'n roll is you can do anything you wanna do, just don't step on my blue suede shoes. I don't think we oughta wonder what kind it is, we should just worry about if it's reachin' people....It's kinda the illegitimate son of a white country singer and a black rhythm and blues, soul mama and they both had a lustful, hot affair, but didn't neither one claim a child and it grew up on the streets of Memphis and Chicago...We know they'll never put us in the Hall of Fame and if they do, we'll be like the fuckin' Sex Pistols. Hall of Infamy is what it really is."
"Look at the prices in my business," he adds, "Look at the price of a ticket. Look at the price of a t-shirt. Only a few people can afford to go to rock concerts anymore. But when I'm able to control it I'm not going above a $7 ticket and I want everybody to be able to see it...And that's coming to pass. A metamorphosis is happening in the business and the finale is coming. Things are gonna be set right."
"It doesn't matter how old you are," he concludes, "It matters what ideas you got, how much the people love you, how much you can please the people, and how much you can do for them that needs to be done. We are their tool, their voice, their melodies. Music is the medicinal antidote to the anxieties and animosities of a humanity that is not humane and a civilization that is not civilized. We need to be out amongst the people and we need to have a whole catalog and a whole library and a whole drugstore full of songs. And we need to be among the people to know what kind of songs they need to help them. The gathering of all of the people we have at concerts is a sacred gathering and to be a master of that ceremony is a sacred responsibility. Even if they steal all my money again, they ain't gonna stop me from doin' what I'm supposed to do."